The Engima of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin
The year 2020 was strange in many ways, the Year of COVID. For Supreme Court watchers, it brought its own unique events, including live oral arguments that took place over the phone. But, what really stood out for some was that Justice Clarence Thomas actually asked questions!
Justice Thomas traditionally is known as someone who turns his nose on engaging during oral argument. Many have a dismissive view of Thomas, especially those who oppose his strong conservative beliefs. He was basically a black Scalia, if one who sexually harassed Anita Hill Besides that, Thomas seems like an “enigma,” whose true nature is unknown to many.
But, the book argues we should not underestimate him. Thomas’ growing importance as an intellectual leader on the Court, including many of his former clerks themselves becoming judges, alone warns us from this approach. And, a serious look — and there is a lot of material out there to take one — will surprise many readers
Thomas is a black nationalist. He shares a pessimistic view with some liberals of the apparent permanency of racism in American life. But, unlike liberals, Thomas obtains lessons here that advance his conservative views. This includes support of black individualism with a pessimistic view of the hope of political and social reforms. It is not a stereotypical conservative viewpoint.
An understanding of his views is ultimately important because he reflects the dark times we are now living in. We need not go along with his view of the world. But, we should understand it.
The book is an attempt to provide an honest, unvarnished accounting of Clarence Thomas’s views. It is not just an ideological study, but a warning about a leading voice in today’s society.
Should I Read It?
This book is an analysis of Clarence Thomas’s conservative ideology.
It is not a full biography of Clarence Thomas though his biography is partially examined to fill in the details. Those who want a full biography (with photos and all that) should look elsewhere.
On the other hand, someone who is looking for an honest accounting of his beliefs with the receipts (a ton of endnotes) should check this out. It is a little over two hundred pages, not a comprehensive look at all of his beliefs. It is a good summary all the same.
The book is not light reading and deals with as it notes an “ugly” picture to some degree. It is not intended for young readers. But, as a whole, it is also not a scholarly work that only academics would benefit from reading.
Those ideologically supportive of Thomas might disagree with some of its conclusions. They should still respect this serious look at its subject. Those ideologically opposed to Thomas should read it too, especially those who might have a simplistic understanding of his views.
Those who like this book might wish to read various books, including several out there on the Supreme Court itself. The Republic according to John Marshall Harlan By Linda Przybyszewski discusses Justice Harlan, who Clarence Thomas cites as one of his role judicial models. Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice by Joan Biskupic will provide some insights on the most liberal justice on the Court.
Justice Clarence Thomas (appointed 1991) has a growing influence in American law, including his former clerks being in top positions. A leading conservative figure, he is labeled an “enigma,” but a careful look at his statements on and off the Court provides a window into his views.
Thomas is a black nationalist. Race is the foundational principle of his philosophy and legal views. It is a very pessimistic view that some on the left might feel is uncomfortably familiar in some ways. Corey Robin strongly disagrees with his views but focuses on understanding them as compared to criticizing them. The book is not meant to be a comprehensive biography.
Part I: Race
(Chapters: Race Man, Stigmas, Separate But Equal)
Thomas was born in segregationist Georgia in 1948.
Thomas experienced racism from an early age, particularly hurt by racism from fellow blacks. This started Thomas’s lifetime feeling that lighter-skinned blacks (including high placed liberals) looked down on darker-skinned blacks.
Thomas also believed that the North, where he went for college, was where he first truly experienced racism. The book argues his claim this is the first time he was called the “n” word is suspect, but that other blacks also felt racism experienced in the North was worse in some ways. Many blacks were used to racism, expected it, in the South.
But, in the North, they expected more from the more “liberal” society. Some also felt the North was hypocritical — it was racist while pretending not to be. Thomas saw it as another case of white/liberal hypocrisy. Both are racist; at least one side is more honest.
Thomas became a black nationalist, a follower of Malcolm X (whose writings stuck with him for decades) and Black Panthers, in college. An important theme here was black manhood, including being able to protect black women. Self-respect is a very important concern.
He married a black woman (Kathy Ambush), later divorcing her in 1984.
[The book says nearly nothing about his two wives, including his current (white) wife Virginia Thomas, or his son with his first wife. His grandfather is discussed a lot, however.]
Justice Thomas in his opinions firmly addresses the presence, the permanent presence, of racism in American society. Blacks suffer a stigma, a suggestion that they are inferior. This is a major problem in his view of affirmative action — elites in charge label blacks as inferior, in need of help. Thomas supports black self-help, including separate black colleges.
This stands out among the conservatives on the Supreme Court. Other conservatives oppose affirmative action, for instance, as a wrong against “innocent whites.” Or, as a wrongful classification since race is an artificial construct. Thomas has a very different emphasis in his separate opinions. He believes there are different white and black social realities.
Part II: Capitalism
(Chapters: White State, Black Market; Against Politics, and Men of Money)
In the 1970s, Thomas moved toward becoming a black conservative. But, various aspects of his black radical days remained, including his pessimistic view of black existence and the importance of black individualism. Black power principles retained some real force in his thinking.
The limits of reform increased his pessimism of change arising from politics. Thomas did not see the civil rights movement as bringing much true success. The limited hope blacks would have would be in the economic realm. And, given how tainted the government is in general, we should lessen regulation and protect property rights as much as possible.
This is reflected again in his jurisprudence on the Supreme Court. Voting rights provide little value to blacks. Change is unlikely (futile) so attacking “disparate impact” (unequal results being evidence of discrimination) is pointless. Thomas strongly opposes limits on campaign spending. In his speeches and writings, Thomas also denounced liberals finding money “dirty.”
Thomas also incorporated allegations of racism in opinions in ways not used by fellow conservatives. For instance, he emphasized the fact that a law regulating corporate donations was originated by a racist. Thomas also used a Takings Clause case (involving a white woman), Kelo v. City of New London, to argue abuses of eminent domain particularly harmed black people. Like in opinions against affirmative action, Thomas used this to accuse liberals of hypocrisy.
Part III: Constitution
(Chapters: Grandfathers and sons, The Black Constitution, The White Constitution)
Thomas’ role model is his grandfather. His grandfather was his own man (had his own business) and was a tough father figure. Thomas’ father was reprobate and his mother was weak and unable to care for him. His parents are a warning sign of what a permissive (liberal) society will bring. To be clear, this is all how Thomas himself sees things.
It is noted that Thomas here has a selective view of things, including not spending the time to understand the position of his wife and sister, who did not get his opportunities. The book argues Thomas’s views are in various ways not consistent, including his use of source materials, and the legal principle of originalism. Thomas has a certain worldview, which can be seen by looking at all the materials, not just a neutral objective analysis of the facts.
Thomas’ view of the Constitution really contains a “black” and “white” version.
The Black Constitution in his view is best shown by the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But, while liberals use the Reconstruction Amendments as a positive change, with a message of hope for true equality, Thomas has a harsher vision. Yes, unlike in the days of slavery, blacks have constitutional rights. The most important means to protect them, however, is individual gun ownership. The state will not protect blacks.
Thomas’ White Constitution is also a product of his pessimistic view of human nature and society. Like his strict grandfather, who demanded total respect, a strong criminal justice system is necessary to retain order. The state (including schools) are like a tough father figure. The “white Constitution,” the Constitution before amendments to protect blacks, is a sort of specter, a threat, necessary to keep blacks (particularly poor blacks) responsible.
Discretion is required and focusing on wrongdoing will make it impossible for criminal justice to do its job. Thomas does not deny the harshness of this approach, though from time to time appears uncomfortable about being too blunt about admitting the unfairness of it all.
Doing so might harm the necessary “tough love” approach he promotes. Plus, his pessimistic view suggests that such things just are the way of the world; it is fruitless to try to stop them. Justice Sotomayor, the other person of color on the Supreme Court, has a very different view.
Epilogue: Clarence Thomas’s America
Clarence Thomas’ extremism, argues Corey Robin, is a warning sign.
We live in a time of deep division and polarization. Many share his often bitter pessimism. We can accept his hopelessness of change. Or, perhaps realize his “shadow of belief” is not the only possible way. Perhaps, we need not live in “Clarence Thomas’s America.”
Points to Ponder
The author carefully tries to understand someone whose views he strongly opposes. This often is hard to do. Consider doing so for someone you strongly disagree with. Someone can be wrong without being made into a caricature. This can in the long run be a productive approach.
A full investigation of a person’s life and views can be very hard. There can be a tendency to pigeonhole them. Fits certain aspects of their life and views into a profile while ignoring the things that do not fit. As you read, check to see if the author avoids doing this.
About the Author
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College. Robin’s writings have appeared in many publications and he is a contributing editor to Jacobin, a left-leaning publication.
Robin has also written Fear: The History of a Political Idea and The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump.
Is the Enigma of Clarence Thomas a Reliable Source?
The book provides an analysis of thirty years of Justice Thomas’ jurisprudence and even more years of his writings and speeches. The author was asked to write the book because of his experience writing about conservative thought.
This is well documented in extensive endnotes, which provides the reader a chance to see what the author is using to summarize Thomas’s views. The author is a liberal but provides a serious analysis of his subject. The breadth of this enterprise is shown by sixty pages of endnotes for a text that is less than two hundred and twenty-five pages.
But, it is not a complete look at his life. For instance, it is curious that an examination of someone so focused on a father figure (his grandfather) lacks any discussion of his own son. How does his white wife fit into his racial views?
[Further insight on the complexity of Justice Thomas was shown to me after this review was first published. Consider this discussion about his “contradictions,” discussed by a strong critic of both Thomas’s legal approach and his off court activities. I am familiar with both sides of the justice, but from personal experience, I am less sure many others are as aware. And, I am not sure this book adequately covers them.]
Nonetheless, the author shows how he reaches his conclusions. The reliability might be suggested by the (admittedly only up to a point) respect offered by the review in the National Review, a conservative publication. As a whole, I personally think the book holds up.
By Joe Cocurullo