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Viewpoint: Says He's Nobody's "Slave"

But Clarence Thomas has a master: the right wing

By Jack E. White

TIME magazine

(TIME, August 10) -- It's a good thing that Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson of Louisiana's state supreme court is such a strong-willed and independent thinker. If she had caved in to critics of Clarence Thomas and rescinded her invitation for him to address the National Bar Association in Memphis, Tenn., we would not have heard the remarkable and revealing speech that the only black member of the U.S. Supreme Court delivered last week. Instead of discussing the work of the court or his judicial philosophy, Thomas spent half an hour lambasting the big, bad bullies in the liberal, pro-affirmative action camp for trying to make him an "intellectual slave."

And you thought Johnnie Cochran, who happened to be in the audience, was a master of playing the race card!

Last week was not the first time that Thomas, who claims he wants to be judged on his ideas, has used racial buzzwords to confuse his critics. During his Senate confirmation hearings in 1991, for example, he charged that Anita Hill and her supporters were subjecting him to a "high-tech lynching." Nor was it the first time he has claimed that his conservatism grew from lifting himself out of poverty by his bootstraps, rather than from bald political opportunism. "Having had to accept my blackness in the cauldron of ridicule from some of my black schoolmates under segregation, then immediately thereafter remain secure in that identity during my years at an all-white seminary, I had few racial-identity problems," Thomas declared last week. "I knew who I was and needed no gimmicks to affirm my identity. Nor, might I add, do I need anyone telling me who I am today."

Fair enough. But the question never has been who Thomas is, but what he has done and how he got into a position to do it. Those are matters Thomas declines to explore, for a very good reason: he may not consider himself an intellectual slave, but he has been lavishly rewarded for serving a particular political master. He has never made a serious attempt to engage his black opponents in a serious debate about his ideas. He owes his meteoric rise exclusively to the patronage of conservative white Republicans with little interest in racial equality. They first took notice of Thomas in 1980 when he cruelly--and falsely--accused his sister of becoming dependent on welfare. As Ronald Reagan's chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he poured disdain on affirmative action--even though it helped him get admitted to Yale Law School. When George Bush in 1991 picked Thomas to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Thurgood Marshall, it was because Thomas would put a black face on the right-wing agenda.

It worked. Thomas "has done more to turn back the clock of racial progress than has perhaps any other African-American public official," says A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., a retired federal judge (who is more qualified for the high court than Thomas). Thomas has voted against minority set-aside programs in federal contracting, against creating majority-black congressional districts and even questioned the logic of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark ruling that struck down segregated schools. It's the substance of those judicial opinions that offends Thomas' critics--not his complexion.

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Cover Date: August 10, 1998

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Viewpoint: Says He's Nobody's "Slave"

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