Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

At his confirmation hearing, Clarence Thomas is a Black man in a very white world

September 12, 1991 


Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON – At his Senate confirmation hearings, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas is a black man in a very white world – facing the questions of white senators prepared by white aides, his answers recorded by a mostly white press corps in a building in which many blacks are relegated to menial roles.

It is a stark image that may confound his opponents’ effort to portray him, his dark skin and up-from-dirt background aside, as the candidate of white privilege.

“I think the man needs to be confirmed,” said Terry Reese, a black man who is a labor dispatcher in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, three floors below where the hearings are being held. Reese has caught snatches of the hearings on television and thinks, “Some of these individuals might be judging him a little too harshly. If you look deep enough at anyone you’ll find something negative.”

It is in the basement, where marble floors give way to a well-waxed cement, that blacks are most in evidence in the Senate building. Here are the offices of those who clean the toilets, mop the floors and serve the meals to the lawmakers and their minions.

Even here, said window washer Willie Brown, the best jobs in the craft shops seem to go to whites, while blacks tend to get stuck working as laborers. “I don’t know if it’s discrimination – I can’t prove it. It’s who you know.”

Brown said it is too early for him to judge Thomas, though he was “surprised and proud” that President Bush chose a fellow black to replace Thurgood Marshall, the only black to have served on the court.

“They say that Martin Luther King did this and did that, but he was a good man who went through a lot of stuff – not just for blacks but for all mankind,” he said.

Elmer Smith, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist who is among the handful of black reporters covering the hearings, agreed that the image of Thomas “sitting alone in this sea of whiteness” may prove appealing to other blacks.

“It is one black man against the whole white world, and that is attractive not just to blacks but to anyone who has been underprivileged,” said a friend of Thomas’ who worked for him when Thomas was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The sight of a black conservative being grilled by white liberals is only one of the images that may jar viewers’ preconceptions about race in America.

Here is a black conservative being led into the hearings by Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. In 1948, Thurmond opposed civil rights as the Dixiecrat candidate for president but now supports Thomas with the same certainty he once championed Jim Crow.

“It’s a new day,” said Vernon Parker, a young black lawyer with the federal Office of Personnel Management. “A few years ago I would never have thought that I would vote for a Republican, let alone be a Republican.”

“Blacks are traditionally conservative but they grew up in a time when the Grand Old Party just meant racism,” said Stuart DeVeaux, a Howard University junior distributing pro-Thomas leaflets outside the hearing room.

There are other images. With him at the hearing is his white wife, Virginia, and her parents, Donald and Marjorie Lamp of Omaha, Neb., who look like they might have once posed for Norman Rockwell. Lamp, in fact, looks a lot like former Chief Justice Earl Warren.

How long did it take to adjust to having a black son-in-law? “About five minutes,” Mrs. Lamp said.

It is all very complicated though. Smith, the Philadelphia columnist, said the white wife confirms some blacks’ suspicions that Thomas is uncomfortable in his own skin.

“The only difference between Thomas and (conservative Justice) Antonin Scalia is that Thomas’ voice is lower,” said Edward Hailes, a lawyer with the Washington bureau of the NAACP, which opposes the nomination.

Hailes is attending with his old boss at the NAACP, Grover Hankins, who interrupts him to praise Thomas.

“I think these hearings will be an eye-opening experience for a number of blacks who didn’t know who Clarence Thomas was and had only heard negative things,” said Hankins, a lawyer with the Department of Health and Human Services and one of several administration blacks who have been attending the hearings to support Thomas. “He is a very charismatic, deep-thinking individual who is committed to equal rights for everybody and he is not going to forget where he came from.”

Steve Patterson, a black Senate laborer, stopped wheeling his large cart of toilet paper to take in the scene outside the hearing room, where Thomas’ advocates and detractors were spinning to small webs of reporters their versions of what had just transpired inside.

“I’ve heard they nominated him because of his skin,” said Patterson, but he thinks maybe that is too cynical. He stayed just a minute before saying he must press on. “Now I’ve got to go make everybody happy,” he said, nodding at the toilet paper.


Written by jonathantilove

July 26, 2022 at 3:13 am

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