The Enigma of Clarence Thomas

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Release Date: 
September 24, 2019
Metropolitan Books
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“Each step of the way, the events and influences in Thomas’ life that led him to his self-described ‘Road to Damascus’ turn to the right could just as easily have turned him to the left. Instead, today we have a justice for whom ‘enigma’ may well be an understatement.”

Author Corey Robin, in his new book The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, notes that the word enigma appears ten times in Thomas’s 3,300-page confirmation hearing transcript. There may not be a more apt term to describe the current Supreme Court’s longest-serving and most secretive justice. In fact, it might well have been appropriate for that word to have appeared 100 times in the transcript.

Robin sets out to explain how a black man who is a product of the racially polarized South ended up as the most extreme conservative on the nation’s highest court. “The aim of this book is to make the invisible justice visible” and to explain how his background led him to the far right on the court, where “race, capitalism, and the Constitution are the primary categories of [his] jurisprudence.” However, he finds himself up against a man who fits nicely within Winston Churchill’s description of what Russia might do at the inception of World War II as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

It all began in small-town Georgia where, as Thomas says, “I grew up under state-enforced segregation.” Thomas’s experiences in Georgia left an indelible mark on him—he has argued that “racism is a fact of American society”—but at least the racism of the South was open and obvious. Out of that background, Robin posits, Thomas fused elements of black nationalism and black conservatism, although he contends that Thomas’s nationalism is selective.

More insidious to Thomas is the racism of the liberals who damn black Americans as inferior beings who need the benevolence of white benefactors to succeed. Thomas believes that “affirmative action deepens the power of white people,” which explains why he is one of the court’s leading critics of the program.

Thomas, the author contends, is neither an advocate of segregation (except in prisons), nor of desegregation or integration, and he quotes Thomas as admitting that sometimes he wants to return to the days “when we had our own schools.” The irony, though, is the perception, if not the fact, that Thomas benefitted from affirmative action, the very program he criticizes.

In what amounts to a psychological profile of Thomas, rather than a straight biography or even legal analysis of his decisions, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas attempts to explore and explain just exactly what it is that makes the justice tick. It presents Thomas as a man who believes that racial equality is unattainable— that race has a “social existence”—and who, in fact, extols the virtues of the color line for the clarity it provides. As Thomas said, “It was more difficult for me to live in Massachusetts than it was for me to live in Savannah. In Savannah, the rules were indeed clear.”

But, the author says, that doesn’t mean that Thomas is content with the state of race relations in this country. The problems of race manifest themselves in accepted American institutions such as capitalism, which Thomas argues is “built on centuries of slavery and Jim Crow,” and politics, in which he contends it is impossible for African Americans to achieve any tangible gains because of the “combination of white racism, racial inequality, and the small size of the black electorate.”

What is most telling in Robin’s analysis, though, is his contention that, while Thomas claims to evaluate the constitution according to the original intent of its drafters, “Thomas’s originalism is at best episodic. Sometimes he relies upon the original meaning of the text; sometimes he distorts or ignores it.”

He asserts that Thomas believes that there are essentially two constitutions: the white constitution, which  was ratified in 1789 when African Americans had “virtually no standing in the American polity, and the black constitution, which followed emancipation and incorporated the “Reconstruction amendments”—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth. And, the author says, Thomas selectively moves between the two in his opinions, sometimes interpreting the latter while on other occasions he “invokes and returns to a Constitution that predates abolition. . . .”

The arguments Robin makes for his assessment of Thomas are sound but, even though they have a logical basis in Thomas’s past, they actually shed little insight into the Thomas of today. Each step of the way, the events and influences in Thomas’s life that led him to his self-described “Road to Damascus” turn to the right could just as easily turned him to the left. Instead, today we have a justice for whom “enigma” may well be an understatement.

As the author concludes, “Clarence Thomas is the most extreme justice on the Supreme Court. He is also the most emblematic. His jurisprudence may be a bitter mix of right-wing revanchism and black nationalism, but it is distinctively American and of the moment.” Or, to put it in the modern vernacular, “It is what it is.”