Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

If Clarence Thomas isn't 'elite,' who is?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
May 7, 2013 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Clarence Thomas said black president had to be approved by "elites and the media"
  • LZ Granderson says it's part of longstanding effort by politicians to deny their own elite status
  • He says Thomas is clearly in the elite due to his role as Supreme Court justice
  • Politicians should be honest about gap between their lives, average Americans', he says

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and was a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- Supreme Court justices are in the top 10% of earners in this country. They attended the best universities and have access to the best health care, a pension plan unaffected by the economy and oh, by the way, immense power.

There isn't a socioeconomic litmus test they could take that would result in them being in a class result other than elite.

And yet Justice Clarence Thomas, when asked during an interview at the Duquesne University School of Law in April whether he thought he would see a black president in his lifetime, made it seem as if he's on the outside looking in. He said he knew "it would have to be a black president who was approved by the elites and the media, because anybody that they didn't agree with, they would take apart."

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

Thomas saying "the elites" in that context is like Honey Boo Boo complaining about "the trash on TV." People are asked to rise when he goes into the office, and he frames himself as some sort of powerless commoner? He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate, two symbols of America's elite.

No, Thomas is part of the elite class that, in his words, "approved" the selection of Barack Obama as the first black president. He can make a distinction between political leanings of those within the class, but that in no way impacts his socioeconomic status.

Thomas' remarks are an extension of the anti-elite rhetoric that has always been a part of the fabric of American politics but because of the proliferation of new media seems to have been amped up to a preposterous level. For the better part of three general elections, we have seen well-educated, well-funded, well-connected politicians bend over backwards trying not to appear to be well-educated, well-funded or well-connected.

Despite the charade, a study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that the average net worth of last year's incoming freshman in Congress was more than $1 million. The average American household? Less than $67,000.

Justice Clarence Thomas speaks out

Everyone wants to be seen as a Regular Joe, but no one wants to admit Regular Joes don't get to be president.

Or Supreme Court justice.

That's not un-American. In fact, if you look at our history, in some ways, that point couldn't be more American.

President James Madison, who is sometimes called "Father of the Constitution," came from wealth and attended what is now known as Princeton University. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, attended the College of William and Mary, rode horses for fun and played the violin. John Jay, another one of our Founding Fathers, was from a wealthy family in New York.

What's more stereotypically elite than a rich guy from New York?

This country's political dialogue would benefit greatly if we acknowledged that part of history and stopped treating the word "elite" like a hot potato. "Elites" exist in all 50 states, regardless of whether they're red or blue.

"Elites" exists in all effective lobbying groups; that's why they're effective.

And "elites" exist in national media, regardless of the call letters.

Fox News has comfortably been on top of the ratings food chain for a number of years now, and yet it continues to brand itself as an outsider, as if it's a weekly alternative newspaper and not a significant part of mainstream media.

At one point, Sarah Palin was making as much as $100,000 per speaking engagement and still tried to paint herself as disenfranchised. Last year, Rick Santorum famously misrepresented President Obama's education policy and deemed him a snob for pushing higher education -- while failing to mention his three degrees.

But the reason why elites play this branding shell game is because people on both sides of the aisle fall for it.

President Obama plays golf with Tiger Woods.

Rush Limbaugh pays Elton John $1 million to sing at his wedding.

And if you listen to them closely, it's the other guy who's elite.

Um, OK.

"I think the president is an elitist, and he thinks he knows what's best for everyone," Eric Maynard, a pastor from Flushing, Michigan, told the Washington Post after a Santorum event in February 2012. "In Michigan, we have a large blue-collar population, and what Sen. Santorum said is right. Not everybody can go to college."

Maynard is right; everybody can't go to college.

But what kind of Jedi mind trick has been used on the country when that very idea is offensive?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT