“He learned as a child,” Ginni Thomas says of her husband, Justice Clarence Thomas, “when he was the first black in an environment, whether it’s school, or whatever, that you look for what you have in common, not your differences.” Which by all evidence is what she, a daughter of the northern prairie, and he, a son of one of the most isolated and poor regions of southern Georgia, did.
One quality the love-at-nearly-first-sight couple had and has is a stubborn insistence on doing their own thinking and sticking to their intellectual and moral guns. Mrs. Thomas has lately been attacked in the press for having political ideas and taking positions, a predilection our Constitution protects, even when these ideas and positions are taken by a woman and run counter to fashion. She has not withered.
She does not sound like a woman who withers easily, as demonstrated in the long conversation between her and Michael Pack that is included in Pack and Mark Paoletta’s new book, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, a hardcover supplement to the 2020 film of the same name. Which surely helps explain the affection the Thomases express for each other:
Ever since I met him, left-wing leaders, or black leaders, have attacked him. That’s just part of our life together. I love how he handles it. He lets it drip off of him like a duck. Clarence just puts things in perspective. It’s painful, and it hurts, and stings, but you have to learn to accept it, and decide are you going to bend to please them or are you going to be your own person?
Clarence Thomas knows something about that. Because he was “the wrong black man” for the Supreme Court, most readers of this magazine will recall, he became as Horatius did in one of the ugliest confirmation hearings in U.S. history, one which then-Sens. Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy did nothing to render even a little more civil. President George H. W. Bush’s nominee withstood what he himself called a “high-tech lynching,” and he said as much to the senators’ faces.
The woman who knew and loved him best tells Pack:
He may have thought it was necessary to go back in front of the Senate, but honestly from his wife’s point of view watching the man who is my loved, beloved husband, I didn’t know he had it in him to keep going.
He did, luckily for the United States. He had a good teacher.
Myers Anderson, Thomas’ maternal grandfather, taught his grandsons to give their full attention to the job, whatever it was, and to think for themselves. He expected them to work as hard as he did, when helping him or when attending the segregated Catholic school in Savannah, to whose nuns Clarence Thomas cannot give enough credit for his intellectual and moral education.
Like the film, which is about one of the most controversial justices of the modern Supreme Court, the present volume — which consists of previously unused material as well as conversations with Ginni Thomas — underscores Clarence Thomas’ intellectual freedom and personal fortitude. The latter is a condition for the former, given his views, which do not fall into conventionally acceptable categories.
He finds it regrettable that his views have invited so much scorn and abuse. He says:
I think we’ve lost the capacity in our society to accept the fact that there are people who have a different opinion. That used to be one of the features of liberalism. Civility was one way of us navigating between those differences and getting along.
However, as he observes:
We can actually sit here and have a conversation about a perception of what I’m supposed to think because I’m black and what I actually think as a reasoning human being. It’s the most absurd thing in the world. I always like to know, what is the black version of nuclear physics? What was the black viewpoint on analytical geometry, or something?
And yet what the film and book prove is that what makes this open-minded, good-natured, free-thinking man shocking is not that he is an eccentric or a provocateur, but that he refuses to stay on the liberal plantation, reliably siding with whatever universal improvement schemes the Democratic Party dreams up. Clarence Thomas is a normal, sensible patriot in an era when abnormal, America-hating people set the terms of debate in public affairs and, with the help of a tame press, demonize those who dare disagree with whatever calumnies are available. (Clarence Thomas was one of the first victims of invented — or induced — sex hysteria, the Salem witch trials of our time.)
Clarence Thomas’ love and respect for his grandfather and grandmother comes across whenever he mentions them. Myers and Christine (“the sweetest woman who ever lived”) Anderson lived through Jim Crow; they protested, at considerable risk, but never complained. Injustice must not be an excuse for failure in the spaces where success is possible or for not always striving to expand those spaces. As he recalls:
The strongest person I’ve ever known was my grandfather. What if he had succumbed to the circumstances around him? What if he said, “Look, I was born in 1907 with no education; that determines the outcome in my life… I’m a beaten-down black man in Georgia.” He never looked at it that way. He rose above all that.
It also becomes clear that the editorial objective of coming back to the grandparents again and again in this series of long conversations is to demonstrate that what we now call “wokism” is by no means a new phenomenon, notwithstanding its contemporary peculiarities and variants. At its core, what is at issue is a strategy for the seizure and holding of political power by an unrepresentative, undemocratic, and unapologetically cynical faction that tells others to “succumb to circumstances” and offers to take care of them. He is fond of quoting Frederick Douglass’ famous admonition to the federal government once freedom had been achieved: “Leave us alone.”
“My grandfather may not have been educated, but he didn’t need somebody in Washington to tell him how to raise his boys,” he tells Pack. He fondly recalls, “My granddaddy had another saying; he said, ‘Boy, it don’t make no damn sense, because it don’t make no damn sense.’”
Life is unfair, but it has to be lived. As Sister Wynona Carr sang of baseball:
Life is a ball game
Bein’ played each day
Life is a ball game
Everybody can play
In the 1950s, when Thomas and his brother (who would have a career in the military) were in their grandparents’ care, the strategy of the same kind of people who decades later came up with “woke” was to divide the country — the United States — by race. In its more honest version, openly espoused in the South, this was called white supremacy, and its practical (and legal) expression was known as Jim Crow. Men like Myers Anderson and Walter White, writer and civil rights leader, and Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, champions of education, and many more, saw that wicked as this was, it was not the natural order of things. On the contrary, the founding documents of the republic contained the repudiation of this allegedly permanent political regime.
Taking the founding documents seriously meant Americans should live by the letter and the spirit of those documents. Anderson, who mortgaged his home to bail out civil rights workers, was a lifelong supporter of the NAACP, the organization headed by Walter White, in its strategy of using the courts to overturn un-American laws that subverted the premise of the American promise: “We hold … that all men are created equal.”
The encounter with the world outside his grandfather’s stern but reliable control at first brought about a crisis in Thomas’s faith. The vocation that he thought he had was dented when he saw that his fellow seminarians scoffed at the integrationist movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
The unrest of those years tempted the disappointed would-have-been priest toward radicalism and black separatism. But by the time he had moved to Holy Cross, as he tells Michael Pack, he opposed the Black Student Union’s demand for a “black corridor.” It would be the first of many dissents: “Why did we come to a white school to segregate again? I just came from segregation, and I don’t care who chooses to do it, we’re still segregating.”
A few years later, Thomas saw how both liberals and radicals, ironically enough, subverted those aspects of the American regime that were needed for the very goals they claimed as their own, liberty and equality of opportunity. Legal positivism (and the judicial activism it promotes) undercuts the idea of natural law as the fount of the Constitution. Liberals favor activism because they are in a hurry — or claim to be, for the question Thomas asked himself was whether they are in a hurry to really help people or to gain control over them and tell them what to think.
The natural law view of constitutional government, by contrast, upholds the centrality of individual rights and leads to a distrust of policies that tamper with them. The United States, as a democratic regime, cannot avoid producing politicians, experts, administrative state officials, and other know-it-alls who find accidentally on purpose that certain policies that they think will keep them in power also are righteous and good for other people.
As a lawyer, Thomas acquired the intellectual equipment to articulate his intuitive sense that social engineering is dubious when not destructive. His grandfather had pointed out the absurdity of, to take the example of public housing, “puttin’ po’ people on top o’ poor people” and “tearing down the neighborhood and building buildings.” Now he also saw the philosophical problem of opposing the administrative state to the Constitution and the delegation of powers:
People like a particular policy. Then they’ll argue about the policy and not think about how you got to that policy. And I think how you got there, and by what authority, is the more important question for us, not the policy itself.
The fact that he was condescended to at Yale Law School, which he attended after College of the Holy Cross, did nothing to deepen his confidence in well-educated liberals. Indeed, like Thomas Sowell, whom he studied and admired, he saw that their projects for uplifting the downtrodden in fact did them more harm than good. As he said:
Why aren’t we that careful when we deal with poor people? (…) [Y]ou can’t hand in a human being after you’ve harmed that human being. There’s no exchange window. The very people that you are using in these kinds of social experiments are the most vulnerable in your society.
This way of thinking was, and still is, unacceptable to the experts. As he matured, Thomas realized there were people who did not recognize his right to think for himself. But as he likes to say in a variant perhaps of the “death and taxes” adage, “There’re only two things I have to do: be black and die.” He had from an early age almost an aversion to being told what to think, notably in the realm of the policy and politics.
He also came to see that if you insist on thinking for yourself, the same liberals who preach tolerance will go at you with thuggish ruthlessness. They will do it to you if you are not their kind of colored man and, as Ginni Thomas knows, if you not their kind of woman:
It’s an interesting world we’re in, where people claim to be tolerant, but they really aren’t. For minorities, or if they put you in one of their designated groups, you’re not supposed to have certain thoughts. There were these set opinions that were supposed to be universal among certain groups, and to criticize these policies, particularly their effects, you were a bad person. You’re not really black …
Thomas certainly knows who he is and learned not to let himself be intimidated and bullied. He put up with huge amounts of abuse for being an American black man, not a black American as dreamed up by ideologues as part of their scheme to keep enough “fools in town” on their side, as Mark Twain put it, to stay in control. The great jurist is not one of them, and you can hear him humming along with Sister Winona:
Yes you know, Jesus is standing at the home plate
He is waiting for you there
Well you know, life is a ball game
But you’ve got to play it fair.