Occupation:Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas was sworn in as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in November of 1991, following perhaps the greatest furor over such an appointment in modern history. A conservative jurist with experience in the education department under President Ronald Reagan, Thomas had also headed the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and, while there, allegedly sexually harassed a staff member, Anita Hill. Hill's accusations surfaced only after Thomas's nomination to the nation's highest court by President George H. W. Bush; Hill was by this time a law professor. The Senate confirmation hearings that dealt with these charges had enormous political and social ramifications above and beyond Thomas's suitability for the Supreme Court.
The judge's appointment was a watershed for the Bush administration, which needed to replace retiring black justice Thurgood Marshall. The choice of a black conservative effectively stymied Democratic opposition to Thomas, who suspended his lifelong criticism of racial politics long enough to call his confirmation hearings a "high-tech lynching." That remark is representative of the many contradictions embodied by this controversial figure. Indeed, Newsweek noted that "Thomas is an intense opponent of affirmative action, yet has benefited from it throughout his life.... the very reason he was named to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court is because of his race."
Thomas was born in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia, a tiny coastal hamlet named for the plantation that once stood there. His mother, Leola, was 18 at the time of his birth; his father M. C. Thomas left the family two years later. Leola, her two children—Clarence and his older sister Emma Mae—and her Aunt Annie Graham occupied what Newsweek described as "a one-room wooden house near the marshes. It had dirt floors and no plumbing or electricity." Their destitute life was struck by further misfortune five years after M. C. walked out on the family, ostensibly headed for Philadelphia: the house burned down, so the family moved near Leola's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Myers Anderson. Having in the meantime married a man who didn't want to raise the children—there was now a third child, Myers, who went by the name Peanut—Leola agreed to let the Andersons care for the two boys and sent Emma Mae to live with Aunt Annie in Pin Point.
Myers Anderson exercised a huge influence on Clarence's life. A devout Catholic who created his own fuel oil business in Savannah in the 1950s, he provided the example of self-motivation in the face of segregation that would inspire his grandson. Through hard work and a refusal to submit to the poverty and degradation of menial work, he "did for himself," as one of his favorite expressions went. He fed and cared for Clarence and Peanut and paid for their education at St. Benedict the Moor; an all-black grammar school where white nuns exercised firm discipline. The racist vigilante group known as the Ku Klux Klan often threatened the nuns, who rode on the backs of buses with their students and demanded hard work and promptly completed assignments. Clarence's grandfather took him to a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which Anderson was a member, and read the boy's grades aloud. "The most compassionate thing [our grandparents] did for us was to teach us to fend for ourselves and to do that in an openly hostile environment," Thomas noted in a 1987 speech before the Heritage Foundation, published in Policy Review in 1991.
Clarence performed duties as altar boy and crossing guard at St. Benedict's, and though not remembered by his teachers as an outstanding student, he excelled at sports. After school he and his brother helped their grandfather on his delivery rounds. Clarence's favorite retreat was a blacks-only library in Savannah; the Savannah public library, funded by the Carnegie family, was for whites. His browsing there helped to formulate his ambition: He would one day have the sophistication to understand magazines like the New Yorker.
He graduated from St. Benedict's in 1962, spent two years at St. Pius X High School, and then transferred—at his grandfather's insistence—to a white Catholic boarding school called St. John Vianney Minor Seminary. Clarence did well in school but experienced for the first time the hostility of racism. His schoolmates' derisive remarks came as a shock—his segregated youth had ironically provided some insulation from everyday racism—but he kept his composure. Following St. John's, Clarence went to Immaculate Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri, to study for the priesthood. As one of only four blacks there, Thomas was again made acutely aware of the double standards of white Christian society. One incident, however, caused him to give up on the seminary for good: the voice of a fellow seminarian cheering the news that black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot in 1968. "I knew I couldn't stay in this so-called Christian environment," he remarked later.
In 1968 Thomas began his studies at Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in Worcester, Massachusetts. This period saw an intensification of Thomas's struggle with his identity, his background, and the politics of race. He joined the Black Student Union, a militant group on campus that succeeded in using its political and rhetorical energies to make some changes, including an all-black dormitory, more courses relevant to black students, and increased financial aid. The atmosphere of questioning and empowerment was exhilarating for Thomas, though unlike many of his contemporaries he never abandoned his earliest sources of strength: "Thomas still spoke the conservative maxims of his grandfather and the nuns far more often than the chic of the left," reported Newsweek. Though he adopted some of the language, style, and arguments of the radical Black Panther Party's leaders, he remained a skeptic and was often the sole dissenter among his revolutionary circle. This tendency would serve him well as he learned what he would later call "the loneliness of the black conservative."
During his sophomore year Thomas met Kathy Grace Ambush and began a relationship that would lead to their 1971 marriage. In 1973 their son, Jamal, was born. Thomas had registered for the draft in 1966, at age 18, but had a student deferment; when he graduated in 1971, and his number in the conscription lottery was low, he seemed a likely candidate for military service in Vietnam. However, he failed his physical examination. He had applied to Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania law schools—all of which had accepted him—and decided on Yale because of the financial support it offered him. Thomas was a beneficiary of Yale's new affirmative-action policy, which offered opportunities to minority students. Though he benefited from this policy, it raised in Thomas—perhaps for the first time—doubts about whether he had succeeded on his own merits. These doubts would trouble him throughout his career and would motivate a deep distrust of what conservatives like to call "entitlements" or "handouts."
Thus he strained to demonstrate his qualifications, to prove that something other than his blackness had brought him into the Ivy League. While at Yale he held some summer jobs; he assisted a small legal-aid establishment, which brought him into contact with welfare cases, and spent a summer at the law firm of Hill, Jones, & Farrington. In the latter job Thomas could exercise his skill at developing both sides of an argument. As a law student, Thomas dedicated himself to areas of legal study less often associated with blacks—tax and corporate law—rather than civil rights. His eagerness to dissociate himself from the stereotypes that surrounded beneficiaries of affirmative action was a strong determining factor here. Yet when he began to look for work as his graduation drew near, he found few law firms interested him. The pay they offered was demonstrably lower than what white graduates would have been offered, and they tended to assume Thomas wanted to do social rather than corporate law. Once again, he found himself pigeonholed by race.
Rather than accept what he considered an insufficient salary from the firm where he'd done his summer work, Thomas accepted a position on the staff of John Danforth, attorney general of Missouri. Danforth had attended Yale himself and, as an Episcopal minister and Republican, he saw in Thomas a promising young conservative. Thomas worked hard under Danforth, and specialized in tax law. He achieved a victory when he appealed a decision against the state regarding the governor's banning of personalized license plates, and won in a higher court. Danforth's office had thought the case unwinnable since a lot of wealthy people had these so-called vanity plates; Thomas felt it necessary to prove that the privileged few couldn't control the law.
Yet Thomas himself sought status symbols; he bought a BMW automobile while working in Danforth's office, though he told fellow workers that a Mercedes-Benz was the car for a "gentleman" to drive. This affection for status symbols no doubt grew out of Thomas's fondness for the ideology of self-help. He took a large step in the direction of greater financial stability when Danforth left Missouri to take a Senate seat; Thomas landed a job as legal counsel for the Monsanto Corporation. There, as Time phrased it, he "shepherded pesticides through government registration."
Monsanto's chemical empire supported him comfortably until he decided to move on to Washington. He returned to Danforth's staff and worked on energy and environmental issues but was at the same time struck by the work of a handful of black conservatives. The writings of right-wing black economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, as well as the black conservative journal, the Lincoln Review, had a galvanizing effect on Thomas. He joined the advisory board of the Review, which has created waves in the black community by taking some very unpopular—some would say reactionary—stands. The journal's editor, Jay Parker, argued on behalf of the government of South Africa, while the journal itself opposed a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.; questioned the extent, if not the existence, of racial discrimination; and referred to abortion as a plot to "slaughter" blacks. Parker and Thomas chatted on the phone in 1980; the controversial editor would soon be looking for interested black conservatives to join the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
Thomas's first offer from Reagan's people was a position as a policy staffer on energy and environmental issues, but he turned this job down, accepting—in spite of his previous aversion to such matters—a place at the head of civil rights under the secretary of education. Ten months later he was put in charge of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an agency charged with enforcing civil rights laws. Why Thomas accepted these jobs remains unclear, since they are the sort of classically "black" appointments he had resolutely avoided in the past. Some observers have speculated that Thomas merely took the positions with the highest political visibility, while others suggested that his recent infatuation with ultraconservative black thinkers like Sowell and Parker had awakened in him a new political enthusiasm, and that he wished to tackle affirmative action and other issues head on.
In any case, Thomas's years at EEOC were fraught with conflict. He was a demanding supervisor and often dealt with employees harshly. He allegedly settled petty scores in harsh ways, argued inconsistently on issues like hiring quotas for minorities—he both opposed and supported them over the course of his tenure—and reportedly avoided prosecuting thousands of age discrimination cases. Although less doctrinaire than "the other Clarence"—Reagan's fiery Civil Rights Commission chair Clarence Pendleton, another conservative black who alienated much of the civil rights community—Thomas made his self-help philosophy well known. He remarked to Lena Williams in a profile in The New York Times that "race-conscious remedies in this society are dangerous. You can't orchestrate society along racial lines or different lines by saying there should be 10 percent blacks, 15 percent Hispanics." He also made waves by remarking in 1984 that civil rights leaders just "bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine."
Despite the discontent he evoked from civil rights activists, Thomas was granted a second term at EEOC in 1984. He did not stand uniformly behind the administration's decisions, however. His was a dissenting voice —though reportedly not a very loud one—when the Justice Department argued that religious institutions like Bob Jones University, which practices various kinds of discrimination, should remain tax-exempt. "A fellow member of the administration said rather glibly that, in two days, the furor over Bob Jones would end," Thomas remarked in a 1987 speech. "I responded that we had sounded our death knell with that decision. Unfortunately, I was more right than he was."
It was a difficult period for Thomas, who had separated from Kathy in 1981; the two divorced in 1984, and Clarence retained custody of Jamal. The circumstances of the marriage and the divorce remain a well-guarded secret, and allegations of abuse made at the time returned to haunt Thomas during his confirmation hearings years later. Thomas became a stern taskmaster at home, pressuring Jamal to succeed at school just as Myers Anderson had pressed him in his own youth. In 1986 he met Virginia Lamp, a white fellow law school graduate active in conservative causes. The two fell in love and married in 1987. Virginia was a Labor Department lawyer when Thomas was nominated for the Supreme Court.
Thomas's private regimen is as interesting a mix as his frequently contradictory public statements. He began lifting weights while at college and continues his bodybuilding to this day, yet he also smokes cigars—not, some would say, the best habit for someone in weight training. Earning $71,000 a year under Reagan, Thomas was chauffeured around in a limousine which, according to Time, stopped at a Catholic church every morning so he could pray. Yet despite his lifelong piety he was accused by Anita Hill of a fascination with pornography and bizarre sexual practices such as bestiality. He has long opposed affirmative action but bases this distrust on a distrust of white institutions, which he believes keep blacks begging for jobs and other economic opportunities.
In a critical 1987 speech before the conservative Heritage Foundation, Thomas articulated his feelings about the perils of "entitlement" programs, job quotas, and—most notoriously—welfare. He had some years earlier shocked listeners by criticizing his sister for her dependency on welfare, though, according to Time's Jack E. White "she was not getting welfare checks when he singled her out but [was] working double shifts at a nursing home for slightly more than $2 an hour." But in this Heritage Foundation speech he articulated more specifically his concern about the "welfare mentality." Though Reagan and others on the right had rankled blacks and civil rights proponents with derisive references to "welfare queens," Thomas's criticisms may have been harder for his opponents to dismiss—or so the administration hoped.
The Heritage Foundation speech also outlined Thomas's plan for bringing more blacks into the ranks of conservatism. "I am of the view that black Americans will move inexorably and naturally toward conservatism when we stop discouraging them; when they are treated as a diverse group with differing interests; and when conservatives stand up for what they believe in rather than stand against blacks," he proclaimed. He went on to suggest that the "unnecessarily negative" approach of the Reagan administration had been more alienating than its political philosophy toward welfare and affirmative action. Many critics have attacked Thomas for this ardent individualism. Bruce Shapiro represented many of Thomas's opponents when he wrote in The Nation of Thomas's "far-reaching commitment to unravel the fabric of community and social responsibility."
Perhaps the most important strand of the Heritage Foundation speech was Thomas's invocation of natural law. This discussion provided the most substantial evidence of his judicial philosophy and was particularly worrying to civil rights advocates and many people concerned about the fundamental separation of church and state. The alarm of these constituencies was magnified by Thomas's citing of Heritage trustee Lewis Lehrman's argument on behalf of the rights of the fetus as grounded in the Declaration of Independence as "a splendid example of applying natural law." In brief, natural law depends on applying a perception of God-given rights and rules—as, indeed, the Declaration and other founding documents of the American republic do, at least rhetorically—to human law. "Without such a notion of natural law," Thomas claimed in his speech, "the entire American political tradition, from Washington to Lincoln, from Jefferson to Martin Luther King, would be unintelligible." Thus against what he perceives as the abstractions and inhumanity of the welfare state, he promotes a philosophy that "establishes our inherent equality as a God-given right." Yet many critics have expressed grave reservations about the implications of such a belief.
The Republican Party, however, which saw potential in Thomas early on, began to see him as a good prospect for the nation's highest court. President George H. W. Bush nominated him to the federal appeals court in 1990, and he was confirmed by the Senate in March of that year. The appeals court is a common stop on the route to the Supreme Court, and this was a route in which Thomas had expressed no uncertain interest. Bush nominated him in 1991. Still, his performance on the appeals court wasn't exactly impressive. "As Supreme Court nominees go," reported Margaret Carlson in a 1991 Time profile, "Thomas has little judicial experience. He is not a brilliant legal scholar, a weighty thinker, or even the author of numerous opinions." Bruce Shapiro was more blunt in the Nation, calling the judge "among the more scantily qualified Supreme Court candidates in recent memory."
The stage was set for an ideological battle over Thomas's appointment even before Anita Hill went public with her accusations. The NAACP, after lengthy discussion and much internal upheaval, voted to oppose Thomas's confirmation. The chairman of the organization, William F. Gibson, read a statement featuring a seven-point argument for opposing Thomas. This statement, which was printed in its entirety in Crisis, reasoned that "Judge Clarence Thomas's judicial philosophy is simply inconsistent with the historical positions taken by the NAACP." The criticisms centered on Thomas's performance at the EEOC and what Gibson characterized as the judge's "reactionary philosophical approach to a number of critical issues, not the least of which is affirmative action." Oddly enough, the NAACP stressed the importance of looking past race in this instance—though it believes fervently in the importance of having African Americans on the Supreme Court—to focus on Thomas's record. Thus an organization traditionally affiliated with the "entitlement" sensibility Thomas so disliked had actually judged him on his merits. It found him wanting. Similarly, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) voted 20-1 to oppose Thomas's confirmation. The lone dissenter was also the CBC's only Republican.
Jesse Jackson, perhaps the most vocal black activist in the United States, was particularly critical of Thomas. In These Times quoted Jackson's remarks to a Chicago meeting of his organization, Operation PUSH: "He is a prime beneficiary of our [civil rights activists'] work. He got public accommodations, the right to vote, open housing because of civil rights marches and activism; yet he stood on our shoulders and kicked us in the head." John B. Judis, writing for In These Times, asserted that Thomas's praise for Lehrman's antiabortion article "puts him on the fanatic fringes of the abortion debate and could prove politically embarrassing to Republicans in 1992." Judis remarked on Thomas's celebration of former National Security Aide Oliver North—who had lied to Congress about his involvement in the famed Iran/Contra scandal—and concluded a lengthy examination of Thomas's legal thinking by declaring simply "that Clarence Thomas is not fit to be a Supreme Court justice."
President Bush expressed his support for Thomas largely on the basis of the judge's character. His life story, a real-world example of the conservative ideal, appeared in virtually every endorsement. President Bush made no mention of Thomas's judicial temperament, nor of his decisions on the appeals court; it was clear that this appointment was a symbolic one. Strangely enough, Thomas's patron had chosen him because he was a successful black man. Whether Thomas privately considered himself a beneficiary of a White House "quota" remains unknown. In any case, Thomas's personal odyssey from Pin Point to the pinnacle of Washington, D.C., success, or some version of that odyssey, would always serve as an endorsement. Lena Williams's article in The New York Times concluded by referring to Thomas's "difficult childhood and his ability to succeed against the odds," an angle that the Bush administration would exploit to the utmost in its presentation of Thomas the judicial candidate.
The Senate's confirmation hearings appeared to be moving along smoothly when Anita Hill's allegations were made public. On October 8, Hill—a professor at the University of Oklahoma Law School—held a press conference, in which she made public the main points of the testimony she had previously given the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI report had been reviewed by the confirmation committee but not made public, and on the day of Hill's press conference the Thomas vote was scheduled to move to the Senate floor. A wave of protest by women's groups and other activists led the committee, headed by then Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat, to review Hill's charges. Her testimony accused Thomas of badgering her for dates while she worked at the EEOC, and of accosting her with stories of pornographic film scenes and his own sexual prowess. The accusations fit the paradigm of sexual harassment in the workplace: the male superior uses sexual banter and other discomfiting tactics as a means of exercising power over a female underling. Hill claimed that Thomas's constant harassment made it difficult for her to do her job and even caused her anxiety to manifest itself in the form of physical distress.
The televised hearings, during which Hill, Thomas, and several witnesses on both sides testified about the allegations, were among the most widely-viewed political events in television history. Thomas denied any wrongdoing, but stopped short of calling Hill a liar. Most of Thomas's political allies on the committee—Republican senators Strom Thurmond, Arlen Specter, Alan Simpson, and Orrin Hatch—interrogated Hill mercilessly, and suggested that Hill was either being cynically manipulated by liberals or was lying outright. Spy magazine reported that numerous young researchers had been recruited by the White House staff to find embarrassing or otherwise damaging disclosures about Hill and her testimony. The partisan battle over the confirmation became so vicious that following the vote, considerable press attention was devoted to the Congress's political game-playing and the painful divisions it left among various constituencies.
Thomas himself remarked during the course of the televised hearings that the process had been a harrowing personal ordeal for him and his wife. Indeed, he claimed, he would have preferred "an assassin's bullet to this kind of living hell," and he would have withdrawn from consideration earlier had he known what lay ahead. Lewis Lapham's column in Harper's the following month attacked Thomas as a hypocrite: "He had the gall to present himself as a victim, a man who had been forced to endure the unspeakable agony of sitting comfortably in a chair for two weeks and being asked a series of facile questions to which he gave equally facile answers." Lapham asserted that Thomas displayed "contempt for the entire apparatus of the American idea—for Congress, for the press, for freedom of expression, for the uses of democratic government, for any rules other than his own."
Many blacks had supported Thomas and followed the Republicans' theory that Hill was part of a campaign to smear him. Many women who opposed Thomas and believed Hill vowed to defeat Thomas's backers in the next elections. Another ramification of the Hill-Thomas debacle was the major attention suddenly afforded the previously neglected question of sexual harassment; the phrase entered the mainstream political vocabulary almost overnight. In any event, the verdict—in the minds of the committee and in the press—was that both witnesses were credible and that determining the truth of what had taken place nearly a decade before was well nigh impossible. The president urged Congress to give Thomas the benefit of the doubt, arguing that he was innocent until proven guilty. Others argued that Thomas was not on trial for harassing Hill, and that any doubt was sufficient to disqualify him. In the end, Thomas was confirmed by a 52-48 margin. To those who complained about the confirmation hearings' focus on these "personal" matters, the New Republic replied that "The Bush administration promoted Mr. Thomas's nomination as a matter of character, not of professional qualifications; and it has reaped a bitter reward."
Following the confirmation, Virginia Thomas told her story to People, recounting the tension of the confirmation fight and speculating that Anita Hill was in love with Clarence Thomas. She referred to the struggle to get Thomas confirmed as "Good versus Evil." Alisa Solomon, meanwhile, writing in the Village Voice, argued that Anita Hill was attacked for showing the same qualities for which Clarence Thomas was celebrated: her ability to argue, her aggressiveness, and her self-sufficiency. Thomas, Solomon wrote, "seems unable to see women as a class, and therefore unable to recognize the importance of rulings that affect us."
Clarence Thomas had made it to the top, and his defiant individual style and renegade opinions had left him with many admirers and many detractors. The question on most observers' minds was this: Would Thomas be the gadfly on a conservative court, or would he fall in line with its prevailing right-leaning tendencies? His experience prior to his confirmation guaranteed that he would be watched just as closely after he donned the robes.
During the first few years after his appointment to the Supreme Court, Thomas remained quiet and out of the limelight that had shone on him for most of his career. He did not ask questions during oral arguments, he wrote few decisions or dissension to these decisions, and most often followed the lead of other conservative justices such as Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. Then, starting in 1994, Thomas came into his own as a justice as he became the deciding vote in numerous controversial cases, many dealing with issues of race and free speech. One specific case that many minorities took to heart was Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Pena where a white owner of a construction company sued the state of Colorado for unfair hiring practices due to affirmative action. Randy Pech, the plaintiff in the case, argued that the state had awarded a Hispanic-owned company the job of redoing highways based purely on the fact that the company was Hispanic-owned and run. Pech contended that he was the victim of reverse-racism and that this was not the purpose of the affirmative action program. The issue was contested heavily both within the court as well as in the media, where many people felt that if Pech won his case that it would be the beginning of the deconstruction of the affirmative action program that greatly helped many minorities secure jobs and education. When the final decision came down, in favor of Pech by one vote, 5-4, it was discovered that Thomas had voted in favor of the majority.
Another example of Thomas's controversial decision making came from the case Missouri v. Jenkins. In this case, the state of Missouri was suing a district judge for forcing them to "waste" money in order to bring more white students into predominately black city schools that were receiving fewer funds from their community than suburban schools that were mainly made up of white students. Once again the case was heavily disputed in the court and once again the decision came out in favor of the plaintiff, with the court split 5-4. Many critics of the decision felt that this was a major blow to the idea that desegregation, whether natural or forced, would bring equality to educational institutions, but Thomas shot back with his own views, which were summed up later in Insight on the News magazine: "He added that a school's majority black status is not a constitutional violation in and of itself and wondered why there was an assumption that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior.'"
Both of these decisions outraged many in the African-American community, who felt that Thomas had turned into an "Uncle Tom," completely controlled by the conservative right who traditionally downplayed the needs of minorities. Yet Thomas felt that it was his job not to play favorites to any one community but instead to show impartiality in his decisions and to try and follow the letter of the law. As he told Jet magazine, "I cannot do to White people what an elite group of Whites did to Black people, because if I do, I am just as bad as they are. I can't break from ... law just because they did. If they were wrong in doing that (using law to discriminate) to us, then I am wrong in doing it to them."
Since 1994 Thomas has continued to make decisions that were not popular in the African-American community. However, as he remained constant in his decisions, he also gained the respect of many people in the field who assumed the worst of him after the Anita Hill hearings. Ronald Rotunda, a professor at the University of Illinois said to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "He thinks independently and it's unfair to think of him as a knee-jerk conservative." Many people still feel however that Thomas has somehow "betrayed" the needs of minorities, specifically those of the African-American community. Yet as Thomas told Newsweek, "It pains me more deeply than any of you can imagine, to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm ... All the sacrifices and all the long hours of preparation were to help not to hurt."
One area that Thomas receives little criticism in is his family life. Although married for the second time, it is clear that Thomas is devoted to his wife and to fostering a healthy relationship. Even more evident is Thomas's love for his extended family. In 1997 he took custody of his grandnephew, Mark Martin, Jr., in order to give him the opportunity to succeed, something he would not have received with his parents. The American Lawyer, explained the circumstances: "Mark Sr., Thomas's nephew, had been in prison on cocaine-trafficking charges. And Mark Jr.'s mother Susan was struggling with her own problems, raising four children, including young Mark Jr., on her own. Thomas believed that the boy would face lifelong trouble if he were not removed from his environment soon, and the parents agreed." According to a friend in the same American Lawyer article, "He was paying back his own grandfather by taking care of Mark."
An Ebony magazine article said that "Thomas's struggle against the tradition of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and his exile from mainstream Black America is one of the strangest stories of our time." Yet many critics wondered if the controversy around his decisions would fade as time went by and he remained a steady advocate for more conservative justice. Yet as recently as 2002, institutions in the African-American community have publicly questioned his methods and protested his appointment to the highest court in the nation. Five professors at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill boycotted a visit that was to be given by Thomas to allow students to discuss and interact with the justice. According to the protestors, in the New Jersey Law Journal the reason for the protest was that "For many people who hold legitimate expectations for racial equality and social justice, Justice Thomas personifies the cruel irony of the fireboat burning and sinking ... his visit adds insult to injury." Thomas, however, takes comments such as these in stride, for as he told Newsweek he has the "right to think for myself." He went on to say that he refused "to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I'm black."
In June of 2003 Thomas dissented from the Supreme Court's decision to uphold affirmative action, and called the policy a "cruel farce" that leaves African Americans with a lifelong stigma suggesting that they only succeed because of their skin color. The Court ruling addressed two separate cased concerning admissions policies at the University of Michigan undergraduate and law schools. In his dissenting opinion, Thomas criticized the Court for maintaining discrimination under the guise of aiding minority students. "The law school tantalizes unprepared students with the promise of a University of Michigan degree and all of the opportunities that it offers," Thomas said in his written opinion. "These overmatched students take the bait, only to find that they cannot succeed in the cauldron of competition."
Policies at the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor College of Law were upheld by a vote of 5-4 as being consistent with the goal of maintaining student body diversity, whereas policies at the undergraduate college, which award a blanket point value (20 out of 150 points) to minority applicants, was found to be more problematic. The Michigan case was the first time that the Supreme Court ruled on an affirmative action case since the 1978 case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in which the Court struck down the use of quota systems in promoting minority students.
In October of 2007 Thomas published his autobiography My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir, in which he wrote about his upbringing with his grandfather and the successes and struggles of his early life. Critical reception of the book was sharply split along ideological lines. Some criticized Thomas for failing to address his failures and successes as a justice, whereas others lauded him for his honest and telling accounts of his childhood and the hardships he was forced to overcome in succeeding to the Supreme Court. Though his biography revealed little regarding the details of the Anita Hill controversy, Thomas wrote about the turmoil that the episode caused in his life and in the lives of his family and friends.
Even though My Grandfather's Son provided an inside look at Thomas's life, for some critics there remain questions about Thomas's judicial performance. In an interview with Newsweek Online, Thomas said about his years on the bench and his general approach to his position, "I made a decision when I first got here: I will only do what is necessary to discharge the responsibilities under my oath. I will not do things for histrionics. I will not do things so people will think well of me. The job is important, it's not about me." Despite statements to the contrary, some critics believe that Thomas's judicial positions are governed more by his mentors and leaders in the conservative community than by his personal duty. In interviews, Thomas expressed the hope that his book and stories of his upbringing would shed light on his decision-making process, showing that his role as a justice is a product of his upbringing and experience and not with the overall trend of the conservative community. "I assume people will say that I am conservative," Thomas said to Newsweek, "But the reason I wrote the book about my grandfather is that my views are consistent with his."
Thomas, Clarence. My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir, Harper Collins, 2007.
—Simon Glickman and Ralph G. Zerbonia
Born on June 23, 1948, in Pin Point, GA; son of M. C. and Leola (Anderson) Thomas; married Kathy Grace Ambush, 1971 (divorced, 1984); married Virginia Lamp, 1987; children: (first marriage) Jamal; (legal guardian of) Mark Martin, Jr. Education: Holy Cross College, Worcester, MA, 1971; Yale University Law School, JD, 1974. Politics: Republican. Religion: Born Baptist, raised Catholic.
Held summer jobs in legal aid and at Hill, Jones & Farrington (law firm), c. 1971-74; offices of Missouri Attorney General John Danforth, staff member, 1974-77; Monsanto Corporation, St. Louis, MO, legal counsel, 1977-80; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, director, 1980-89; Federal Appeals Court, judge, 1990-91; Supreme Court Justice, 1991-.
Black Student Union, Holy Cross College, founder, 1971; advisory board of the Lincoln Review.
Biography Resource Center. Gale.