Clarence Thomas' Race Problem

My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas (Harper Collins, 2007)

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Clarence Thomas doesn't trust white folks. He doesn't have much faith in black people, either, but that's another matter. What comes through most strikingly in his screed of a memoir is how much white power frustrates him, and how similar he is in that regard to other African Americans of his class -- ambitious, successful and, yet, embittered by the always present but difficult to identify specter of white supremacy.

Thomas is fond of literary comparisons, and in his new memoir, My Grandfather's Son, he draws on a wide range of texts to help the reader grasp his mind frame. When repeatedly lauding his own "heterodox" thinking, he insists that he's followed Robert Frost's road less traveled. When haranguing white liberals, he alternately casts himself as Franz Kafka's Josef K., Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas and Harper Lee's beleaguered Tom Robinson -- unjustly hounded by a "howling" mob that "wouldn't be satisfied until it had tasted my blood."

But the literary lens for understanding Thomas is actually James Baldwin's 1985 "Evidence of Things Not Seen," a book-length essay on the haunting nature of post-civil rights era racism. "This country," Baldwin writes, "is not so much a vicious racial caldron -- many, if not most countries, are that -- as a paranoid color wheel." Race means nothing, yet everything. It has shaped every facet of modern American life, yet we steadfastly insist that we’ve transcended it. The resulting gap between the rhetoric and reality of race in America can be crazy-making -- and Thomas, for one, has been driven mad by it.

This fact is betrayed by Thomas' recounting of his Senate confirmation process -- a sad and unflattering tale that he has single-handedly revived with this bizarre book.

Set aside the question of Thomas' actual guilt or innocence in sexually harassing Anita Hill; what ought to be clear is that he won the fight, securing a lifelong job as one of the nation's most powerful figures. Indeed, Thomas congratulates himself for that victory while recounting his sun-splashed swearing-in ceremony on the White House's South Lawn. "Thanks to God's direct intervention," he waxes, "I had risen phoenixlike from the ashes of self-pity and despair, and though my wounds were still raw, I trusted that in time they, too, would heal."

They didn't. Sixteen years after the fact, he's written a memoir for the inescapable purpose of throwing more mud at Hill and the white senators who dared question him about his relationship with her.

Thomas' still-seething rage is palpable, and he revels in it. He recounts in detail his tormented emotions throughout the confirmation process, thrashing between hyperbole -- he repeatedly characterizes the charges as an effort to “kill me” -- and petulance, at one point describing the mock gagging gestures his wife made while secretly listening in on a call from Sen. Joe Biden. All the while, he insists that he couldn't have cared less about the prize, only in maintaining his good name. By the final vote, he writes, he'd so lost interest that he was off soaking in a bath. He scoffed when his wife interrupted to deliver the victorious news: "‘Whoop-dee damn-doo,' I said, sliding deeper into the comforting water."

In refuting Hill's charges, however, he offers no new evidence (or old evidence, for that matter). Instead, he reopens the Republicans' character assault on her, re-tarring her with loaded caricatures that have long been used to dismiss professional black women -- she's "touchy and apt to overreact," a loose cannon. But Thomas doesn't stop with Hill. He breaks Supreme Court decorum by openly defaming still-sitting Democratic senators, including Biden and Ted Kennedy. And he compares the late Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin, a Judiciary Committee powerhouse who famously challenged coded racism in his home state, to "a slave owner sitting on the porch of a plantation house."

In fact, the book is primarily an effort to expand on Thomas' charge that white liberals used Hill to carry out a "high-tech lynching" on an uppity black man. "Should I have seen it coming?" he ponders. "Even as Daddy had been teaching me that hard work would always see me through, my friends in Savannah told me to let go of my foolish dreams. 'The man ain't goin' to let you do nothin',' they had said over and over. ‘Why you even tryin'?' Now I knew who ‘the man' was. He'd come at last to kill me, and I had looked upon his hateful, leering face as he slipped his noose of lies around my neck."

Many will read My Grandfather's Son as a cynical attempt to rewrite history, and it is that, to be sure. But it is more. The reason Thomas' rage outstrips his remarkable professional and political achievements is that his confirmation shattered the thin armor he'd donned for navigating America's "paranoid color wheel" as an ambitious black man -- namely, that through unceasing toil and a blind embrace of "the rules," he could eclipse, if not defeat white supremacy.

"I felt myself crushed beneath the accumulated trials of a lifetime," he writes in one revelatory passage on his confirmation. "Never before had I felt their full effect, and the burden seemed more than I could bear. Ever since leaving home, I'd played by the rules -- but where had it gotten me? Whites could change those rules whenever they pleased. It had always been that way, and always would be."

That's a stunning statement from the poster boy of the movement against state-led efforts to level the racial playing field. Thomas and his right-wing backers have long held that official racism in America is dead. To them, all that remains are random acts of meanness by individual, rogue whites and a pathological sense of victimhood among individual blacks, fostered by liberal paternalism. But Thomas arrives at this conclusion through a much different path than his patrons. His focus on the individual, as opposed to the system, stems from a deep distrust of both white and black folks' goodwill.

That distrust began in his infancy, when Thomas' birth father abandoned him, his brother and his mother; his father became for Thomas the symbol of how low a black man can be driven in this society. It's a lesson his maternal grandfather, who raised him, never let him forget.

Thomas attempts to describe Daddy, as he calls his grandfather for whom the book is titled, affectionately. But he paints a portrait of a joyless brute who constantly held his love and protection out as a gift, not a right. "The door to his house, he said, swung both ways," Thomas writes. "It had swung inward on our arrival, but if we didn't behave, he warned ominously, it would swing outward." Daddy kept his word, throwing Thomas out when he quit seminary.

Thomas had quit as part of a brief, youthful flirtation with black power politics, but his grandfather saw a slippery slope to ruin. "You'll probably end up like your no-good daddy or those other no-good Pinpoint Negroes," the old man railed, in one of many warnings about falling prey to the fate of poor blacks in his Georgia hometown.

But Thomas had actually been drawn by black power's theme of self-determination, which fit with Daddy's teachings in substance, if not style. Daddy was an entrepreneur -- he started off chopping folks' firewood and turned that into fuel-oil sales -- and he liked to tell Thomas a story about the last time he'd worked for a white man. One time the guy naggingly asked him what he was doing; Daddy gripped his ice pick and spat "none of your damn business."

So for Daddy, and a young Clarence, the way around white supremacy was simply not to need white folks in the first place. From Catholic grade school through Yale Law School and on into his professional life, Thomas wielded this notion as his shield and sword against the looming threat of being beaten into his place as a "no-good Pinpoint Negro." And his legal crusade against what he calls "racial preferences" is an effort to help the rest of Black America do the same -- by not depending upon dubious white largesse.

Problem is, not even Thomas believes it has worked. And his confirmation hearings continue to bedevil him because they are stark reminders that, no matter what he achieves, he still serves at the white man's pleasure.

Thomas is hardly alone in struggling with these conflicting, jumbled sentiments. As part of its "Being a Black Man" series last year, The Washington Post polled nearly 1,300 African American men about their lives. Nine out of 10 said they believe in the American dream and would tell their sons they can be anything they want to be. But two-thirds also said they'd caution their sons that they'll have to work twice as hard as their white peers to gain the same rewards.

It's the realization of this double standard, Thomas writes, that made him an "angry black man" as a youth. He claims to have healed, but his memoir is proof that he's still pissed off about it. And who wouldn't be? It's hard to be a black man in America, even for Clarence Thomas.

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