By all indications, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has nothing but contempt for his fellow African-Americans – and the feeling is mutual. They’ve called him “Uncle Tom,” describing Thomas as a “token black” and “the worst Negro in America.” It’s not surprising; his record on voting rights, affirmative action and a host of other issues that directly affect black people in the U.S. reveal him as the worst kind of hypocrite.
In 2013, he voted with his fellow right-wingers to remove part of the Voting Rights Act, effectively allowing states (particularly Southern ones) to disenfranchise black voters. In 2014, Clarence Thomas again joined his conservative colleagues on the bench in upholding Michigan’s right to prohibit affirmative action policies when it comes to college and university admissions. In 2008, a wrongly-convicted black man in Louisiana who had spent 14 years on death row was awarded $14 million in a lawsuit. The verdict was later overturned by the Supreme Court – and Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the right-wing majority. To Thomas, holding the prosecutor liable for his misconduct in handling the case was somehow “unconstitutional.”
The list goes on and on…and it leaves us all wondering – what is wrong with this man?
His early life exeriences hold some clues.
Clarence Thomas was born on June 23, 1948 in the small community of Pin Point, Georgia, just outside of Savannah. It was a time of unbridled “Jim Crow” laws and rigid segregation. Lynchings were not uncommon. His family lived in the kind of grinding poverty that is difficult for most of us to imagine. Thomas didn’t even grow up speaking modern American English. His family’s first language was Gullah. It is a creole dialect made up of archaic English combined with West African vocabulary, grammar and syntax (similar dialects are still spoken in the Bahamas and Barbados).
When Thomas was a young child, his father abandoned the family. His mother subsequently remarried about the time Thomas was seven years of age. Her new husband rejected her children. Clarence and his younger brother were sent to live with their maternal grandfather in Savannah.
It was a life-changing experience. Thomas’ grandfather, Myers Anderson, was a successful merchant. For the first time in their lives, young Clarence and his brother enjoyed luxuries such as indoor plumbing and regular meals. Anderson instilled a strong work ethic in the boys, and emphasized the importance of education. Nonetheless, neither Anderson nor other blacks in the neighborhood allowed Clarence to forget where he had come from. He was taunted with the dismissive statement, “Oh, you from Pin Point.”
In a time and place where lighter skin among blacks was a status symbol, Thomas’ dark complexion also made him an object of scorn (according to a number of sources, Thomas was called “ABC – America’s Blackest Child”). In a 1987 interview appearing in the Washington Post, Thomas said his grandfather often threatened to send him back to Pin Point if he failed to meet expectations. Myers Anderson, a member of the NAACP, often took Clarence – a shy and withdrawn child – to meetings, forcing him to read his grades out loud in front of an audience. In 2002, Thomas told the Washington Post: “[I] can’t think of any good the NAACP ever did. Civil rights leaders, in general, just bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine.”
In short – Clarence Thomas has never forgiven his fellow blacks for the way they treated him as a youth. Having been abandoned by his mother may have to do with his misogynistic views on women as well.
Thomas’ experiences have also convinced him that gains made by African-Americans in the past century owe little to civil rights legislation or shifting attitudes on the part of whites. In another article, published in The Atlantic in 1987, Thomas said: “There is nothing you can do to get past black skin…I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are at what you do — you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”
Thomas sees himself to be a “self-made man” who never got help from whites or anyone else. He finds affirmative action and the idea that he benefited from such policies to be insulting: “I don’t think black people are indebted to anybody for anything. Nobody has done us any favors in this country, buddy. This thing about how they let me into Yale…that kind of stuff offends me. All they did was stop stopping us.”
It is apparent that Clarence Thomas is an embittered, conflicted and self-loathing man. His early experiences explain his worldview – but do they excuse it?
There’s no doubt that Thomas worked very hard to get where he is today – but nobody truly does it on their own. Like his fellow right-wingers, Clarence Thomas buys into the old Horatio Alger story, believing that he did it all by himself – and that anyone who relies on any kind of assistance is weak and lazy. It is one of the destructive myths that has driven the conservative agenda for the past generation. And as for his childhood and youth, we who have experienced rejection and high pressure can sympathize and understand that pain. But at some point, we have to make a choice: are we going to release that pain and forgive those who caused it – or are we going to hold on to them, allowing them to eat away at our souls like a spiritual cancer?
Clarence Thomas has apparently chosen the latter.