Native Son

Why A Black Supreme Court Justice Has No Rights A White Man Need Respect

For years, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has been faced with the thankless, if well-rewarded, task of explaining to "enlightened" white script writers -- including those for The Cosby Show -- that their heads are stuffed with offensive racist stereotypes.

"It’s a problem," Poussaint said in a speech several years ago at Stanford. "What you get in the scripts is their perception of blackness."

One of the major reasons for the persistent problem is that millions of white adult Americans define "racism" as its most pathological manifestations: wearing white gowns and hoods, burning crosses, tarring and feathering blacks, hunting them down with dogs. Because those same millions of white Americans would not dream of committing such atrocities; because they vote for political representatives who pass civil-rights bills; because they applauded Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall; because they respect the changing nomenclature by which certain blacks wish to be addressed, they imagine themselves to be free of racism.

What they have never learned is that racism is an idea, a very old and intransigent idea. That idea exists on an unbroken continuum -- all the way from a form that is fully conscious to a form that is unconscious. Its manifestations can range from the most grossly offensive and scornful invective to a compulsive noblesse oblige that cannot permit itself to make any criticisms at all. But whatever the degree or kind of racism, it invariably contains a double standard: The racist simply does not treat black individuals the same way he treats whites.

The effect of stereotypes on blacks is a sense of being unseen, as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The effect on whites is the corollary: They do not perceive blacks as real or make the same fine discriminations among blacks that they habitually make among whites. In the last analysis, they do not perceive black individuals; they perceive black skins. And this remains true at every step of the continuum.

It should not, therefore, come as an insuperable shock that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court were a racist phenomenon. The "nice" kind; no Simon Legrees or fiery crosses here. But racist nonetheless. Setting aside old segregationist Strom Thurmond, who conscientiously counterfeited a dead man and may, for all I know, actually have been dead, the other senators participated, singly and collectively -- and unwittingly -- in a process that ceaselessly generated negative stereotypes about Thomas.

So unaware were these men of their own racist stereotyping that when, at the 11th hour, they were forced consciously to deal with a negative stereotype, they didn’t recognize it and had no principles with which to assess it or with which to differentiate between the black individuals involved. The press commentators generally revealed the same incapacities. All eventually ended up mired in an unspeakable crudity that would never have occurred had the protagonists been white.


The original hearings generated at least five negative racist stereotypes, all in one way or another springing from acts of omission, defaults of thinking, rather than conscious racism. The senators blinded themselves profoundly to what they were doing, and that self-blinding led to the ultimate explosion, the meaning of which they and the agitated white press do not understand to this day. I present those initial stereotypes roughly in order of ascending gravity:

1. The Nomination. Much has been made of the fact that President Bush lied when he said, in nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, that Thomas was the "best" candidate and that Thomas had not been chosen because he is black. Of course that was a lie, and so happy were Bush’s critics to have caught him in a lie that they gave no thought to the implications of that particular lie for Thomas, and neither, of course, did Bush.

To omit the serious intellectual reasons for wanting a black nominee, and for wanting this particular black nominee, was to leave a vacuum. And the vacuum was implicitly filled by a negative stereotype. What Bush’s lie implied, without his knowing or intending it, was: "I’m naming an empty suit with a black body inside it and with nothing worthy of presidential note in that black body’s head." From Day One, thanks to the president, Clarence Thomas was an empty-headed black in an empty suit. That’s Stereotype 1. Start counting.

2. The Strategy of Evasion. The second, and reinforcing, stereotype emerged as a byproduct -- again unintended -- of the Republican strategy of evasion, the tactic that had worked with David Souter in contrast with the opinion-laden Robert Bork and with which Thomas had agreed to cooperate. Whatever objections can be raised to that tactic -- and there are dozens -- the one that was not raised was the effect on Clarence Thomas. Thomas was not, as some historical revisionists are now claiming, an incompetent candidate. His legal writings and his opinions on one of the most prestigious appellate courts of the land had been carefully read by 1,000 members of and consultants to the American Bar Association, including "reading committees" from some of the most distinguished law schools in the country. Thomas’ work was found to be well researched and economically and lucidly written; he was adjudged competent to sit on the Supreme Court.

The Republican strategy of evasion had the cumulative effect of destroying most of the evidence of Thomas’ competence. As he gradually realized, he could only smuggle in a few of his own ideas and correct a few misinterpretations of his writings. And while Souter had been able to dance theoretical pirouettes around constitutional issues while landing nicely on his feet, having said absolutely nothing, Thomas lacked such balletic skills. He had crammed for months just to learn what he might be required to say -- and then he had crammed all over again to learn how not to say it. When the time came to evade, he could perform no theoretical arabesques; he just plain, lumberingly, evaded -- monotonously, over and over again. He wasn’t used to it. To his credit, he was an abysmally bad evader.

The result was yet another offensive stereotype. The empty-headed black in an empty suit became, in addition, a dumb, shifty, and evasive black.

3. Senatorial Etiquette. An ostensibly simpler piece of advice from Thomas’ "handlers" pertained to the etiquette deemed obligatory when addressing senators. And again, this boomeranged against Clarence Thomas. For various reasons, our senators engage in incessant mutual flattery and proclamations of collegial devotion. The more they despise each other, the more they do it. When they are at the point of mutually induced nausea, the air around them resonates with "My distinguished colleague from Dubuque," "My good old friend from Peoria, whom I hold in the highest esteem." The participants understand that such fawning formulations are riddled with dark jokes, cynicism, and arrant hypocrisy and are not to be believed for an instant.

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  • canada gooses parka||

    These are the kind of products, where you see that Supreme always does go a step further than everybody else. They have created two earflap caps this season. One checkered together with New Era, that comes in 3 colorways and one in their classic colors with fur inside. Both very unique pieces and they dropped now, just on time for the cold season. Make sure to get yours quickly, as these will of course sell out in no time.
    Essence has them in stock now.

  • some guy||

    I hate gooses. Geese, on the other hand, are a-okay.

  • Free Society||

    what's good for the goose is good for the gander, you racist.

  • Aloysious||

    I feel not unlike that I am in pursuit of an untamed ornithoid.

  • Hyperion||

    This is the most messed up start to a comments thread that I have ever seen here.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Two year old comments from when this first came around. Not sure what they mean, but I figure it's not worth worrying about.

  • Hyperion||

    They must mean that all Libertarians were drunk and/or stoned that day.

  • Marshall Gill||

    That day? Every day.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Ahh, back in the pre-registration days, when commenters gamboled in and out like the carefree, naked savages they are.

  • some guy||

    I had nearly forgotten about that halcyon time. Now the memories of not having to type in a password ever day are flooding back. Depression to follow.

  • AuH20||

    If black conservatives weren't The wrong team, holy shit would people fawn over them. Condi? Dad was a preacher who fought off the kkk with a shotgun. Thomas overcame gut wrenching poverty, not having either of his parents around (raised by his grandparents) and speaking gullah to bw a supreme court Justice. Wtf has Melitha Harrith Perry done again?

  • Bill Dalasio||

    You probably shouldn't leave out Thomas Sowell, a guy whose father died shortly before he was born and whose mother gave him to his aunt to raise because she couldn't afford to raise him. His childhood encounters with white people were so limited that he did not believe blond was really a hair color.

  • Hyperion||

    Thomas overcame gut wrenching poverty, not having either of his parents around

    Well, that's just wrong. If he were a good minority, he would have sit around waiting for the government to give him free stuff.

    Wtf has Melitha Harrith Perry done again?

    Came the closest of any living human being, ever, to reaching peak retard?

  • Marshall Gill||

    Came the closest of any living human being, ever, to reaching peak retard?

    While she is highly ranked, Shriek is clearly number one.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Did Justice Thomas wear tampon earrings? No? Then he lacks the enlightenment of a Harris Perry.

  • Knarf Yenrab (prev. An0nB0t)||

    Thinking this was a joke, I googled Melissa Harris Perry tampon earrings. The results are, impossibly, even more ridiculous than I might have imagined.

  • Almanian!||

    Jesus Christ but this is tedious! Learn brevity, man! Here, let me help:

    1) It's not racist unless it's coming from not-liberal whites.
    2) It's not racist if the target is a not-liberal black person.
    3) It's not racist if the intentions of the person(s) doing it are noble, as defined by FUCK YOU, THAT's WHY!

    Therefore, Clarence Thomas is a Teathuglican, rat-fucking, Uncle Tom of a house n-word ((I can't say it cause I'm white), self-hating, Step -n- Fetchit tool of the Koch Brothers who is no more qualified to serve on the Supreme Court than he was when he was nominated.

    I blame Bush.

  • Almanian!||


    Thomas was...[a]..boy from the South


  • Hawk Spitui||

  • BCallaghan924||

    Wow, it's studies like this (or, rather the interpretation people draw from them) that make me question my decision to go into the social sciences. I'm sure the person who reported on it watered it down, but the researcher seems to assume that being against a particular policy is automatically an indicator of racism, even though the measure that is theoretically closer to actual racism (attitudes) tells us just the opposite. Because, apparently, nobody can oppose affirmative action without being a racist. I even believe the explanation that whites are more likely to oppose these policies to some, conscious or unconscious, extent to protect their own position in society. But of course you would never hear anybody suggest the opposite: that blacks may support them simply to improve their own status. And people wonder why the academy is suffering from a lack of ideological diversity.

  • ||

    "High-ability whites are less likely to report prejudiced attitudes...."

    Holy shit. The lack of self awareness with these people is just takes the breath away.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    If the author had left out the parts about unconscious, institutional racism, I would have been much more in agreement with it.

    It's not that Thomas is some color-blind, colorless figure who just happens to be black, it's that he's someone who intensely identifies with the black experience but, inconveniently to liberals of all races, has drawn politically-incorrect conclusions from that experience.

    Reflecting on the experience of his forbears in this country, Thomas has developed a vision which (aside from his unfortunate devotion to executive power in national-security cases) is exactly what this country, and Americans of all races, need today.

    His vision is of a color-blind legal system, where your ancestry doesn't give you a leg up of any kind, where nonwhites who advance in the world are assumed to have made it on merit not favoritism. The vision also makes lots of room for federalism, despite demagogic claims that federalism=Jim Crow and slavery (as if the federal government never had a Fugitive Slave Act or interned Japanese Americans). Thomas's vision also allows for robust free speech. Plus, the mere fact that previous Supreme Court decisions allow lawless injustice is no reason to blindly follow those precedents - he doesn't think "stare decisis" is a thought-stopping phrase preventing judges from implementing justice under law.

    I can't think of any other Supreme Court justice who comes close to him, though admittedly this is a low bar to clear.

  • Outlaw||

    Is that a racist pizza?

    I'm hungry now.


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