Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette
San Diego, California (CNN) -- Clarence Thomas has an abundance of two things that are often in short supply whenever Americans talk about race: courage and common sense.
The only African-American on the Supreme Court displayed both this week in speaking to a small gathering of students and faculty at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a nondenominational Christian school in Florida.
In a series of provocative and insightful comments about race that were first reported by Yahoo! News and confirmed by several people who attended the talk and heard the remarks firsthand, Thomas dropped a few bombshells.
This got people's attention because -- nearly 25 years after his bitter confirmation battle -- Thomas remains a lightning rod for controversy, and because he rarely speaks while on the bench. Apparently, he has been saving the best stuff for the public remarks that he delivers in more casual settings.
Like this one:
"My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school," Thomas told the audience. "To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white (Catholic) school. Rarely did the issue of race come up."
He went on to note that, these days, many Americans talk about race a lot and have a hair trigger on the subject.
"Now, name a day (race) doesn't come up," Thomas said. "Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn't look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive."
The sensitive include Samuel L. Jackson. In a cringe-inducing confrontation, Jackson scolded an entertainment reporter at a Los Angeles television station after the journalist, in asking about a Super Bowl commercial, appeared to confuse Jackson for another African-American actor -- Laurence Fishburne. Both actors had appeared in Super Bowl commercials, and the reporter seemed to get them mixed up.
"You're as crazy as the people on Twitter. I'm not Laurence Fishburne!" Jackson said during a live TV interview with KTLA's Sam Rubin. "We don't all look alike. We may be all black and famous, but we all don't look alike. You're busted."
Rubin immediately apologized for the mistake, but Jackson kept razzing him. It was overkill.
"I'm the other guy," the actor said. "There's more than one black guy doing a commercial. I'm the 'What's in your wallet?' black guy. He's the car black guy. Morgan Freeman is the other credit card black guy. You only hear his voice, though, so you probably won't confuse him with Laurence Fishburne."
It seemed to be all in good fun, but it was still hard to watch. Rubin made a mistake. But it looked like Jackson was the one with the problem.
Rubin did have some defenders. They include CNN's Don Lemon, who -- after a contentious exchange between guests on a show he was hosting -- seemed to agree with Thomas that "people are really sensitive when it comes to race."
Finally, Thomas took aim at a group that often gets a pass for its mistreatment of minorities that it claims to be helping.
"The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites," he said. "The absolute worst I have ever been treated, the worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, are by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia."
Only Thomas can speak to how he has been treated in his life, and who treated him worse. That is a personal matter. As one of the most conservative members of the High Court, he obviously has little respect for liberals. And the feeling is entirely mutual.
And yet, we can expect Thomas' observation about "northern liberal elites" to resonate with many other African-Americans and Latinos who have been criticized, attacked, or disparaged by this bunch for veering off the script of how minorities are supposed to think, speak and behave. Those minorities are often treated as defective in some way and certainly not representative of their respective communities. They're an aberration, an anomaly, a mistake.
Make no mistake. The friction here isn't about politics. It's about something more primal: control. Liberals wanted to give people like Clarence Thomas every right except, it turns out, the right to think for themselves. If you forget that, you'll be labeled a "sellout," a "traitor," a "right wingnut" or worse.
Most Americans probably look back on Thomas' confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991, and think that what made them so messy were those unseemly accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. That was a sideshow. The real reason for the tension in those hearings was that Thomas represents something liberals can't stand: a black conservative.
Those on the left see conservatives of color as a kind of sociological experiment gone bad -- these are people who are ungrateful for the many opportunities they were provided by the liberal establishment which, in return, asked for only three things: undying loyalty, constant agreement, and lifelong subservience.
Thomas doesn't play that game. He never has. And that's why he is always at the center of the storm.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.