Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Clarence Thomas played the race issue to great advantage

October 20, 1991


Newhouse News Service 

WASHINGTON – From Pin Point, Ga., to the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas has proven himself an extraordinarily skillful navigator of America’s treacherous racial politics. Whether by design or circumstance, Thomas advanced his career by alternately identifying with his race and downplaying its significance.

When the considerable dirt kicked up by his nomination settles, the central irony of  confirmation may be that he rescued himself from defeat by resorting to precisely the same appeal to race – to black feelings of victimization and white feelings of guilt – that he has devoted his public life to denouncing.

To some detractors, it was only the most recent cynical chapter of a life story in which Thomas has tacked back and forth on questions of race in search of the stiffest wind to propel his career.

“Every step was self-serving,” said Duke University historian John Hope Franklin, one of the nation’s pre-eminent scholars of black history. “He used this way one time and another way the next, for whatever it was worth.”

But to his admirers, Thomas’ emotional denunciation of last weekend’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” was genuine. This was not a man, they said, who surrendered his black identity simply because he embraced a conservative philosophy on civil rights.

“Clarence Thomas never stopped being a black man,” said Glenn Loury, a Boston University economist who has been with Thomas at the vanguard of black conservative thought. “A lot of these people who are attacking him have no closer connection with everyday black people than he does.”

Indeed, said Loury, when all was said and done, polls showed that most blacks, unlike most black leaders, rallied to Thomas’ side in his hour of need. It was that surge in black support for Thomas that was commonly credited with keeping in line a handful of key Southern Democrats whose defections would have cost Thomas his confirmation.

“It was a masterful use of racial politics,” said Ron Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University. “I was astounded.”

After all, Thomas’ critics said, this was a man who climbed from the segregated South to Yale Law School on the backs of the civil rights movement and with a hand up from affirmative action. Yet, having made it, he won conservative favor and quick advancement in the Reagan administration by portraying his life story as a parable of individual achievement, not government action, and decrying racial preferences as inappropriate and counterproductive.

“Playing the group game builds up racial conflict,” Thomas said while chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Reagan. All the civil rights leadership does, he said, is “bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan and whine.”

Some years ago, he derided his sister for being so hooked on public assistance that “she gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check,” even though she had only stopped working long enough to care for an ailing relative.

“Put candidly,” Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., said on the Senate floor, “Clarence Thomas seized on the welfare queen stereotype, even if it exaggerated the facts and even if it was his sister, in order to score conservative points.”

“He’s been able to manipulate the images and stereotypes of black people to a very strong degree to get him where he is,” said Gerald Jaynes, the director of Yale’s program in African-American studies.

Never more so than when his elevation to the court was threatened by charges of having sexually harassed Anita Hill. Even though Hill is black, Thomas invoked racism in a most vivid and visceral way, calling the hearings a “lynching” based on charges that he said appealed to destructive stereotypes of the black male. The lynch mob, Thomas said, were those black leaders and white liberals who don’t like to hear blacks espouse conservative ideals.

“I could not believe my ears,” Franklin said. “Lord, was that demagoguery.”

During the summer, Jaynes had scolded those who had disparaged Thomas as somehow less black because of his conservative views. But Jaynes said that when Thomas ultimately used his race to defend himself, it was an act of “hypocrisy.”

“He has been one of the most outspoken critics of black people pointing to race as the motivation for any kind of attack on them or crisis that confronts them,” Jaynes said. “As soon as he gets stuck in a particularly bad situation, what does he come up with?”


Written by jonathantilove

July 26, 2022 at 3:23 am

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