Thomas Sowell

It would be hard to think of anyone whose portrayal in the media differs more radically from the reality than that of Justice Clarence Thomas. His recent appearances on "60 Minutes," the Rush Limbaugh program, and other media outlets provide the general public with their first in-depth look at the real Clarence Thomas.

These media appearances are part of the promotion of his riveting new memoir, titled "My Grandfather's Son." Otherwise, Justice Thomas would probably have continued to confine himself to doing his work at the Supreme Court, without worrying about what was being said about him in the media.

In an era when too many judges, including justices of the Supreme Court, seem to be playing to the media gallery -- if not writing opinions or leaking information with an eye toward favorable coverage in the press -- Justice Thomas' refusal to play that game tells us a lot about him.

His memoir tells us more. Born in material poverty beyond anything experienced even by people on welfare today, Clarence Thomas was raised with an abundance of discipline and character-building that would pay off in later life.

This was largely the work of his grandfather, who raised him, and whom he now calls "the greatest man I have ever known." But that was not his view at the time, when he was a child.

His grandfather, however, was not preoccupied -- like so many modern parents -- with how the children see things. He took his role as a parent to be to see things that children could not see, including challenges that they would encounter in later life.

The metamorphosis of Clarence Thomas went through many phases -- from altar boy to seminary student to a campus radical and racial militant, before eventually coming full circle back to the values his grandfather taught him and an understanding of the law and society that he acquired on his own.

One sign of where he was in his radical and militant phase was that, when someone gave him a book of mine to read, he threw it in the trash basket.

But, by the time I first met him, in 1978, he had already reached the same conclusions on his own that I had reached.

Those conclusions were probably more firmly grasped because they were his own, rather than something he read by somebody else.

Clarence Thomas' own experiences shocked him into a realization that "affirmative action" and other policies being pushed by civil rights organizations and by liberals generally were doing more harm than good, both to blacks and to American society.

In an era when so many people have neither the time nor the patience to examine arguments and evidence, critics have tried to dismiss Clarence Thomas as someone who "sold out" in order to advance himself.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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