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Bearing the Pain of Affirmative Action

The Shame of Clarence Thomas

by JOHN GRANT

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied …
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
For your ribbons and bows

- Leonard Cohen

In honor of our Supreme Court I’ve decided to start this piece with a prayer.

Great Spirit of our imagination, have mercy on us stupid, hypocritical bipeds, especially those exceptional examples in black robes who decide whether an armed police officer can strip-search us in public or whether a one-hundred dollar bill has a conscience. Do all you can, Mighty Great One, to allow at least a little light and compassion into the hidden, dark recesses of their august institution.

Amen.

Now we can get on with this humble, scribbled note from underground.

Considering his appointment history in conjunction with his opinions and voting record concerning affirmative action, if Clarence Thomas had any sense of human decency … No wait a minute! … Given the facts of his life, if Clarence Thomas had any honor, a backbone or a pair of independent-minded balls, he would resign.

It’s true: I’m angry. The Supreme Court’s recent banning of affirmative action in a case from Michigan recalled for me how really offensive the Thomas case is and how it smells worse as time goes by. Thomas notoriously sits among his eight colleagues and does not ask questions, which suggests he lacks the intellectual confidence to swim with the big fish on the court. On top of that, he’s a virtual intellectual drone of Antonin Scalia. According to a recent study, he’s the most conservative judge on the bench — even more so than his master Scalia. I would not have thought that possible. (I realize the use of the word “master” for Justice Scalia may bother some. For example, I can hear Sean Hannity fulminating how I’m a “racist” for using plantation terminology. The fact is I can’t speak in dog whistle language and prefer a French horn.)

The reason Thomas should resign is simple: He consistently argues and votes against affirmative action while he is arguably the most controversial case of affirmative action in American history. It’s like Macbeth campaigning against murder.

Along with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Thomas graduated from Yale Law School. Both benefited from affirmative action. While Sotomayor, who wrote a 58-page dissent in the Michigan case, is a ferocious defender of affirmative action due to past injustices, Thomas consistently damns it and votes against it. He wrote the following in a 2003 legal dissent:

“When blacks take positions in the highest places of government, industry, or academia, it is an open question today whether their skin color played a part in their advancement.”

He should know. There’s no question this applies to him.

In his memoir, he said his decision to accept an elite education from Yale Law School was a mistake. “I felt as though I’d been tricked, that some of the people who claimed to be helping me were in fact hurting me. It was futile for me to suppose I could escape the stigmatizing effects of racial preference.”

One naturally wonders where Thomas would have ended up without the boost he says so ironically “hurt” him? Without that elite 1974 Yale degree, would Missouri Republican Senator John Danford have made him an aide and become his political patron, getting him jobs like the one Ronald Reagan gave him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then, President George Bush The First put him on the Appeals Bench for 16 months before elevating him to the Supreme Court.

If in retrospect accepting help was such an unpleasant mistake, why does he remain in the extremely “stigmatizing” role as a blatant affirmative action token on the US Supreme Court? He must be miserable there; the pain he cites must secretly gnaw at him day-in, day-out. You have to wonder how the man lives with himself. After all, Clarence Thomas is not a stupid man. No one is suggesting that. While his earlier job offers and promotions may not have been race-based, there’s no doubt his final one was. He’s a glaring example of the old Peter Principal, which said people tended to be promoted to their level of incompetence, where they remained.

So he sits there in his black robe and says nothing, affecting a posture of rugged individualism that alleviates all the pain of being chosen purely because of his race. He has certainly ingratiated himself to right wing power circles and probably plays a lot of golf. And, oh yeh, he has figured out how to scapegoat liberals and progressives for his problems.

Every reasonably aware American knows Clarence Thomas is the result of a high-powered Republican decision to stand on its head everything that the famous progressive African American Justice Thurgood Marshall stood for. Everyone knows it was Marshall’s affirmative action-based inclusion on the court that created a “black seat” on the court. The crime of it all is the Marshall seat was, more importantly than the race of its holder, a progressive seat focused on civil rights. Clarence Thomas embodies the shame of this cynical theft each and every day he votes with apologists for Wealth and Police Power like Antonin Scalia.

But maybe I’m living in a fantasyland. Maybe I’m too concerned about human decency versus the cynicism of today’s politics. I guess I’m looking for a 21st Century Judge Joseph Welsh, the man who in the 1950s famously cut Senator Joe MacCarthy off at the knees in the Army hearings by saying, “Sir, have you no sense of decency?” But this is the age of House Of Cards, the back-stabbing political TV soap derivative of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third. We’re told it’s the Clintons’ favorite TV show. We read that Game Of Thrones is making rape as a Machiavellian political act more acceptable. Maybe life will imitate art and we’ll be absorbing that reality in the next decade. Does the Constitution actually say that rape is illegal?

Clarence Thomas sits up there on that high bench like a mocking minstrel show caricature of affirmative action. Despite what Sean Hannity says, dog whistle racism is real and vestiges of the old horrors linger because we too easily absorb moral outrages like the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the seat held by the civil rights giant Thurgood Marshall.

As my underground progressive mind works with the fodder of the moment, I imagine the loquacious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling both seeing an ally in Clarence Thomas. Thomas and his wife are on a cross-country tour in their big cozy camper. They’re all getting together in some plush surrounding — maybe on Sterling’s yacht or the porch of Bundy’s ranch house. They’re eating a dinner of bloody rare steaks from federally subsidized cattle. They’re all having a fine time running down the facts about how poor black people are hurt and abused by liberal federal help. As self-made, rugged individuals all, they assure themselves they can help poor black folks better. They are joined by Dick Cheney and, after a few beers, all head for the quail shooting range.

Of course, this is the fictional ravings of an ungrateful underground man whose liver hurts. Still, it may veer close enough to the truth that it slightly disturbs decent people. My hope is that Clarence Thomas would man up, admit he’s a twisted example of affirmative action and resign. I’d be the first to congratulate him for lifting that humiliating burden off his shoulders. I think he’d feel a lot better.

JOHN GRANT is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent three-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. His work, and that of colleagues DAVE LINDORFF, GARY LINDORFF, ALFREDO LOPEZ, LORI SPENCER, LINN WASHINGTON, JR. and CHARLES M. YOUNG, can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net