Clarence Thomas, the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is that Washington rarity: a genuinely independent thinker.
Thomas's character was sculpted by his fierce, proud grandfather, Myers Anderson of Savannah, Georgia, who raised Clarence and his brother during the twilight years of segregation. Thomas went on to Holy Cross, where he was an angry black militant, then to Yale Law School, the Monsanto Corporation, and finally the staff of Missouri Republican Sen. Jack Danforth.
Thomas emerged as a leading critic of civil rights orthodoxy at the Fairmont Conference of black conservatizes in late 1980. He caught the Reagan administration's eye; a short stint as assistant secretary of education was followed by his 1982 nomination to head the EEOC. (He was reconfirmed in 1986.)
Under Thomas's direction, the agency--which is charged with overseeing enforcement of the panoply of job discrimination laws--has shifted its emphasis from imposing hiring goals and quotas toward protecting individual victims of discrimination. And Thomas has come under heavy fire from civil riqhts leaders for his heterodox vieuws.
The liberal and conservative establishments have never quite known what to make of the man. He is not your typical Reagan appointee: he flirted with the Black Panthers; he still respects Malcolm X; he cites the angry novelist Richard Wright and his laborer grandfather as major influences.
In a much-discussed profile in The Atlantic, Juan Williams recently painted Thomas as "something of a black nationalist, as well as a sad, lonely, troubled, and deeply pessimistic public servant. " Thomas disagrees.
And it is true that any melancholia lies beneath a friendly, engaging disposition. His candid conversation is punctuated by loud, hearty laughs; he is reputed to be a kind boss given to philosophical discussions with his colleagues.
Clarence Thomas was interviewed in his Washington office by Assistant Editor Bill Kauffman.
Reason: Ever Clarence Thomas profile I've ever read begins with a discussion of your grandfather.
Thomas: We're not going to start this one that way, right?
Reason: Do you view your professional career as a vindication of his life?
Thomas: It is a vindication of the way I was raised. Thank God I have had the opportunity to attempt to indicate it. The thing that bothered me when I was in college was that I saw myself rejecting the way of life that got me to where I was.
Reason: What were you rejecting?
Thomas: We rejected a very stable, disciplined environment. An environment with very strict rules, an environmenl that put a premium on self-help, an environment that did not preach any kind of reliance on government--there was a feeling that you had an obligation to help other people, but it didn't come from the government. For example, we lived out in the country during the summer, and so we'd shop once a month. We had chickens and hogs and corn and beans on the farm, but the staples we had to go to the grocery to get. When we came back my grandfather would go by people's houses, and he would just drop groceries on the porch. Or if we harvested something, he'd just put it there and leave. Somebody's house burned down, he'd go and start marking it off and we'd start building another house.
We rejected all of that--it was gauche. You weren't supposed to think that old- fashioned people who couldn't read and write had anything to offer.