After all the twisted racial history of the United States Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas was confirmed by the Senate with the smallest margin of victory in more than 100 years, with little professional scrutiny and with a level of manipulative political rancor that diminished everyone directly involved. The effect on Thomas, we learn from this impeccably researched and probing biography, was to reinforce the chronic contradictions with which he has long lived.
Thus, although he seriously believes that his extremely conservative legal opinions are in the best interests of African-Americans, and yearns to be respected by them, he is arguably one of the most viscerally despised people in black America. It is incontestable that he has benefited from affirmative action at critical moments in his life, yet he denounces the policy and has persuaded himself that it played little part in his success. He berates disadvantaged people who view themselves as victims of racism and preaches an austere individualism, yet harbors self-pitying feelings of resentment and anger at his own experiences of racism. His ardent defense of states’ rights would have required him to uphold Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, not to mention segregated education, yet he lives with a white wife in Virginia. He is said to dislike light-skinned blacks, yet he is the legal guardian of a biracial child, the son of one of his numerous poor relatives. He frequently preaches the virtues of honesty and truthfulness, yet there is now little doubt that he lied repeatedly during his confirmation hearings — not only about his pornophilia and bawdy humor but, more important, about his legal views and familiarity with cases like Roe v. Wade.
Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher conducted hundreds of interviews with Thomas’s friends, relatives and colleagues for “Supreme Discomfort,” in addition to doing extensive archival research. Although Thomas refused to be interviewed, this was not a serious handicap, given his vast paper and video trail and his volubility about his feelings. The authors superbly deconstruct Thomas’s multiple narratives of critical life-events — the accounts vary depending on his audience — and it says much for their intellectual integrity that though they are clearly critical of their subject, their presentation allows readers to make their own judgments. Thomas is examined through the prism of race because, they argue, “that is the prism through which Thomas often views himself,” and their main argument is that “he is in constant struggle with his racial identity — twisting, churning, sometimes hiding from it, but never denying it, even when he’s defiant about it.”
The first third of the book assiduously assembles the shards of his life from his birth in Pin Point, Ga., to his nomination to the Supreme Court by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, and it casts new light on the social and psychological context in which Thomas fashioned himself. Pin Point, where he spent his first six years, comes as close to a scene of rural desolation as is possible in an advanced society. This is black life in the rural South at its bleakest, in which the best hope of the law-abiding is a job at the old crab-picking factory. It is in this sociological nightmare that a 6-year-old boy, by some miracle of human agency, discovers the path to survival through absorption in books. Born to a teenage mother, abandoned by his father when he was a year old, plunged into the even more frightening poverty of the Savannah ghetto, Thomas, along with his brother, was eventually rescued by his grandparents.
Thomas has made a paragon of his maternal grandfather, Myers Anderson, an illiterate man who, through superhuman effort, native intelligence and upright living, was able to provide a fair degree of security for his family. Anderson cared deeply for the downtrodden, and the hard turn in Thomas’s adult individualism cannot be attributed to him. Indeed, it turns out that the man Thomas reveres disapproved strongly of his conservative politics.
Three other important forces shaped Thomas. In addition to white racism, he suffered the color prejudice of lighter-complexioned blacks. This dimension of black life has been so played down with the rise of identity politics that it comes as a shock to find a black person of the civil rights generation who feels he was severely scarred by it. Thomas says that growing up, he was teased mercilessly because his hair, complexion and features were too “Negroid” and that his schoolyard nickname was “ABC: America’s Blackest Child.” The authors seem inclined to believe contemporaries of Thomas who claim that he exaggerates and has confused class prejudice with color prejudice, as if class prejudice were any less execrable. On this, I’m inclined to believe Thomas, although, given where he now sits, the wife he sleeps with, the child he has custody of and the company he keeps, it might be time to get over it.
But Thomas bears the scars of yet another black prejudice: not only was he too black, he was also culturally too backcountry. Coastal Georgia is one of the few areas in America where a genuinely Afro-English creole — Gullah — is used, and Thomas grew up speaking it. In Savannah he was repeatedly mocked for his “Geechee” accent and was so traumatized by this that he developed the habit of simply listening when in public. That experience, Thomas claims, helps explain his mysterious silence on the Supreme Court during oral arguments. This seems a stretch, since Thomas is now an eloquent public speaker and an engaging conversationalist who, like most educated Southerners north of home, erased his accent long ago.
Another revealing aspect of Thomas’s upbringing is his difficult relationship with women. He is now reconciled with his mother, but for much of his life he resented and disapproved of her. She, in turn, acknowledges that she preferred his more compassionate brother, who died in 2000. The event that most angered the black community was Thomas’s public rebuke of his sister for being on welfare. The person most responsible for adopting and raising him was his step-grandmother, yet it is his grandfather, who initially spurned him and had abandoned Thomas’s own mother, who gets all the credit. His first career choice was to be a Roman Catholic priest, and he actually spent a year in a seminary, presumably anticipating a vow of chastity. For all his bawdy humor, he was extremely awkward with women, and his bookishness did not help. This hints, perhaps, at one source of his later troubles.
Up to the point of Thomas’s confirmation hearings, this book is a finely drawn portrait that surpasses all previous attempts to understand him. The remainder of the work is more wide-angled. Merida and Fletcher, who are journalists at The Washington Post, take us through the tumultuous hearings, then examine Thomas’s career and personal life up to the present: his complete embrace by the extreme right (he is a friend of Rush Limbaugh’s); his performance on the court; his relationship with Antonin Scalia, an ideological ally who some people think heavily influences Thomas’s thinking; and his secluded private life. We learn interesting things about him — for example, the stark contrast between his sometimes unfeeling legal opinions and his often compassionate personal relationships; the fact that he has quietly facilitated the confirmation of very liberal black judges, often to their amazement; and that he is probably the most accessible of the justices and enjoys the admiration and abiding loyalty of his clerks.
The treatment of Thomas’s legal doctrine, however, is pedestrian. Whatever one’s reservations about his “originalist” philosophy — notoriously, he has held that beating a prisoner is not unconstitutional punishment because it would not have appeared cruel and unusual to the framers — recent evaluations of his opinions by scholars like Henry Mark Holzer and Scott Douglas Gerber indicate that they should be taken seriously. Well, by lawyers anyway. We have also gone beyond the question of “who lied” in our assessment of the hearings. Of greater import would have been a critical examination of the bruising politics behind these hearings, the way both sides manipulated Thomas and Anita Hill, and the questionable ethics and strategic blunder of the left in focusing on Thomas’s sexuality, given America’s malignant racial history on this subject, instead of on his suspect qualifications for the job.
Nonetheless, the book remains invaluable for any understanding of the court’s most controversial figure. It persuasively makes the case that “the problem of color is a mantle” Thomas “yearns to shed, even as he clings to it.” In doing so, it brilliantly illuminates not only Thomas but his turbulent times, the burden of race in 20th-century America, and one man’s painful and unsettling struggle, along with his changing nation’s, to be relieved of it.
Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of “The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s ‘Racial’ Crisis.”