Cold Shoulder, Still, For Justice Thomas

Posted: Jul 20, 2001 12:00 AM
Ebony magazine, a longtime staple among the urban audience, has once again studded its pages with their list of the 100 most influential blacks in America. Among the honorees are a host of cultural, political and social torchbearers, ranging from Secretary of State Colin Powell to record mogul Master P. Notably absent from the list, however, was Justice Clarence Thomas, whose vital role as the only black member of America's highest court was somehow overlooked. A brief recap: There is no black Supreme Court. There is simply a Supreme Court, from which this country secures those basic freedoms that we associate with happiness. For 10 years, Justice Thomas has played a vital role in this process. How, one wonders, could Ebony have missed this rousing point? Likely, the omission is due to the fact that the mere mention of the name Justice Clarence Thomas often generates derisive snorts from black Americans. Much of the aversion stems from Thomas' opposition to racial and gender preferences. The specter of not supporting the traditional civil rights orthodoxy has given Thomas a negative connotation, making him seem at best, "self-hating," at worst, a subtle betrayer of his race. Or, as the late A. Leon Higginbotham once observed, "Justice Clarence Thomas has done more than any other "African-American to turn back the clock of racial progress." Such remarks are characteristic of the vitriol that Thomas has had to endure ever since his Senate confirmation hearings in 1991 and likely a good indication of why he was not embraced by Ebony and black culture in general. Sadly, these attacks have little relation to reality. As Thomas has explained, the very embryo of his legal philosophy was bound up in the question, how do we end slavery? "You and I are sitting here in Washington, D.C., with Abraham Lincoln or with Frederick Douglass, and from a theory, how do we get out of slavery?" asked Thomas during his conformation hearings. His answer was provided by the Declaration of Independence, which sagely observes "that all men are created equal." From this fundamental expression of liberty, Thomas correctly reasoned that our common rights derive from our common humanity, rather than the color of our skin. From there, he concluded that protecting individual rights, rather than legislating group rights best serves genuine human equality. As the chairman of the EEOC, this meant vigilantly pursuing claims of discrimination. As a Supreme Court justice, it has meant eschewing the victim status that is inextricably bound up with racial- and gender-based quotas. Though Thomas has lauded civil rights activists for pushing issues relating to discrimination into the mainstream, he also noted that "the [rights] revolution missed a larger point by merely changing their status from invisible to victimized." Get it? Justice Thomas has correctly reasoned that embracing victim status is worst than radical or destabilizing, it is inherently self-limiting. Plainly, to regard all minorities as victims neatly removes such terms as "character" and "personal responsibility" from the cultural dialogue. After all, what need is their for individual striving when it is plainly understood that all the difficulties we suffer are the direct and indisputable result of our shared past? "...Minorities and the poor are humans," explained Thomas, "capable of dignity as well as shame, folly as well as success. We should be treated as such." For Justice Thomas the equality and essential dignity of all human beings, not just black Americans, is the point. Since these views do not mesh with traditional black voting patterns, Justice Thomas has been reflexively dismissed by many of his peers, even as he works to secure those basic rights that we all associate with freedom.