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The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
"The problem with segregation was not that we didn’t have white people in our class. The problem was that we didn’t have equal facilities."
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In this Kvetch I share notes on Corey Robin’s biography of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.
Ideological Turing test
Feminisation of black rights
Segregation as Sovereignty, Persecution as Strength
Blacks as the main victims of black crime
The belief aesthetic of the ruling class
1. Ideological Turing test
One thing that makes this biography of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas interesting is that its author, Corey Robin, disagrees with its subject. Yet Robin passes the ideological Turing test: he presents a coherent and compelling worldview of the man whose views he calls ugly.
Clarence Thomas is the perfect example of his hyper-racial supplicating opponents not really caring about what black people think. The author begins with a tortured caveat:
Thomas’s is a voice that unsettles. His beliefs are disturbing, even ugly; his style is brutal. I want to make us sit with that discomfort rather than swat it away.
As if it is not self evident why we should try and understand the worldview of a US Supreme Court Justice, let alone its only black one. This is the gentle massaging needed to prepare someone likely to pick up a biography of a US Supreme Court Justice — perhaps wearing her favourite RBG t-shirt. Trigger warning: not your world view ahead. But then the author continues:
This is not so that we adopt Thomas’s views, but so we see the world through his eyes—and realize, perhaps to our surprise, that his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us even more.
Maybe it’s less a trigger warning and more a Trojan horse: enter and know thy dark self.
So whilst we might scoff at the way Robin handles his reader with cotton gloves, despite Robin’s disagreements we might suspect his covert reactionary sympathies: Thomas comes across as charismatic, an ambitious, thoughtful, and curious young firebrand.
Robin’s most striking reassurance is when he quotes Thomas as saying:
It was in Boston, not Georgia, that a white man had called me nigger for the first time.
Which is an absolutely wild thing to say, and raises interesting questions. Robin is skeptical. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I would have thought it’s quite a thing for a white journalist to correct a black judge’s assessment of when he was first called n*gger.
It’s fun to follow Thomas’s ideological journey since his youth. Who doesn’t recall the sweetness of new ideas and the rebellious ideological experimentation of youth? Thomas seems the opposite of his public portrayal as silent and austere:
He may have hung the Confederate flag in his Law School apartment, thumbing his nose at the liberals he loathed, but he was careful to place the Pan-African flag next to it.
2. Feminisation of black rights
The story of Thomas — born in 1948 in Montgomery, Georgia to go on to study at Yale University — follows the best of the arc of twentieth century black rights in America. For Thomas the struggle for black rights was intertwined with male empowerment, and the subjugation of black communities was their emasculation.
According to Thomas, the architects of the welfare state did not simply undermine people’s work ethic and create generations of poor people who need a government handout, as most conservatives claim. Rather, white liberals had set out “to destroy people like my grandfather and declare his manliness to be foolishness and wasted effort.”
Thomas’s resentment of welfare as emasculating now seems antiquated. The debate from prior decades over welfare is over: all sides shovel as much money as possible into the trough. And culturally, victimisation is the ultimate status symbol.
Immersed in the black rights movement of the 1960’s, one is struck by its subsequent feminisation. The chauvinistic black nationalism of the 1960’s, the invective of Malcolm X, the invocation of Christian scripture or of Islam, the gun toting masculinity of the Black Panthers all now cede to a coalition of black women and “queer bodies”.
The movement then was an explicit appeal to the restoration of black men as household heads and fathers. That doesn’t work in today’s anti-patriarchal zeitgeist. Or perhaps an even more pessimistic take: black women have lost hope in black men.
3. Segregation as Sovereignty, Persecution as Strength
Thomas hated being the only black boy in his school and resented being a black man among the whites in the North, all the way to the bench.
The blessings of diversity fall mostly to whites; the burdens, as he sees them, are borne by blacks…It’s not merely that whites flourish in diverse elite institutions, flaunting their openness and urbanity, their culture and sophistication. It’s that their flourishing comes at black expense. It is the black body, or psyche, that pays.
More so, he saw liberalism as an oppressive force that dissolved self-sufficiency and identity:
Living a life without consequences under liberalism, African Americans lose the skills and virtues, the muscle and memory, that made it possible for them to survive, even thrive, under Jim Crow—and that they still need to survive today. As white society slackens, so do black people, only more so. The result of the liberal culture of rights is the dissolution of the black self, particularly the self of the black man who once led his people to freedom or at least protected them from its abridgments.
In this view, the harm of Jim Crow is that it denied rights; the harm of the end of Jim Crow is that it granted them.
This is a shocking perspective beside the modern memory of segregation. Thomas offers a defense of segregation from the perspective of the segregated. He inverts segregation into its sparkly twin: national self-determination. What is the difference after all? One is chosen and one is imposed. But that is also a posture: the segregated too can grab the mantle of sovereignty, hence the potent force of black nationalism in its heyday. (Well, in theory anyway: admittedly, it’s trickier beneath the whip or resource starvation.) Was integration into a rainbow coalition the only path? Is that what we have now?
I am the only one at this table who attended a segregated school. And the problem with segregation was not that we didn’t have white people in our class. The problem was that we didn’t have equal facilities. We didn’t have heating, we didn’t have books, and we had rickety chairs.… All my classmates and I wanted was the choice to attend a mostly black or a mostly white school, and to have the same resources in whatever school we chose.
This insight runs against the retrofitted narrative of brave integrationists bussing white kids into black schools. It’s a striking, empowering perspective, one I had not come across before.
Well that’s not quite true: there is a parallel here with the Jewish community, which decries anti-Semitism yet also fears its opposite, assimilation. The fear of the dissolving effects of liberalism on Jewish identity. And Judaism did find a solution in nationalism: Israel. Jewish emancipation and the Zionist realisation in Israel may be the successful mirror to the endless desert wanderings of the African diaspora in America. It’s no surprise African Americans found succor in the story of Exodus and sought their own Moses to lead them out of bondage to the Promised Land.
To follow Thomas’s logic would be to become a black nationalist. Perhaps an underrated idea today, with the empowerment of sovereignty and self-rule.
Maybe it’s no accident that there is no call for an independent black nation in America today. The US crushed similar aspirations in the past — from native Americans to Mormons to black nationalists. Maybe the black rights movement in its current form is a perfectly managed opposition — demanding no land, no responsibility, nothing more than can be granted symbolically. Or a more pessimistic take would be that black Americans do not feel the kinship that defines a nation, or believe in their ability to self-rule. “If you will it, it is no dream”, said Theodore Herzl. First, must come the will.
4. Blacks as the main victims of black crime
The US Department of Justice during Obama’s presidency released a report on crime that showed that blacks in the US were 6x more likely to be victims of homicide than whites and 8x more likely to be offenders:
These issues are not new. What is disproportionate incarceration to one man remains insufficient justice to another, notably black women:
In his memoir, Thomas traces his realization of the centrality of black-on-black crime to the start of his work in John Danforth’s office in Jefferson City, Missouri.
“What bothered me more was that as a criminal-appeals attorney, I would have to argue in favor of keeping blacks in jail. I still thought of most imprisoned blacks as political prisoners. I had no facts to back up this opinion, a reflex response left over from my radical days, and didn’t need any: I knew that anything “the man” did to black people was oppression, pure and simple. What changed my mind was the case of a black man convicted of raping and sodomizing a black woman in Kansas City after holding a sharp can opener at the throat of her small son. He was no political prisoner—he was a vicious thug. Perhaps he and the woman he’d brutalized had both been victims of racism, but if that were so, then she’d been victimized twice, first by “the man” and then by the thug. This case, I later learned, was far from unusual: it turned out that blacks were responsible for almost 80 percent of violent crimes committed against blacks, and killed over 90 percent of black murder victims.”
In Thomas’s telling, the liberalisation of the sixties and seventies hurt black women the most: the crime unleashed and familial dissolution through the sexual revolution.
5. The belief aesthetic of the ruling class
Thomas sees the American ruling class’s obsession with diversity as a signaling device, with blacks a balm for white guilt. It’s gotten much worse since his time at Yale, institutionalising into formal religious structures.
Diversity, in other words, does not benefit students academically: it does not improve their grades, polish their writing, or enhance their learning. Instead, it lends a future ruling class “a façade” of color. It burnishes the credentials, image, and style of those students—mostly white—who will go on to run American society… The aesthetic of the classroom is important for the self-image of the ruling class, for its sense of itself as a class. It is how white elites signal to other white elites their sophistication, taste, and cosmopolitanism. “All the Law School cares about is its own image among know-it-all elites.”
It’s remarkable how much these sentiments echo to today. Just like you can read Harold Bloom’s contempt of the desecration of literary culture and intellect over 20 years ago. These frogs have been boiling for decades.
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