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But he had been cast in the role of a black criminal taking the Fifth, 100 times, and a would-be butcher of women.
With this last, as any cop on the beat could have told the senators, Thomas had been smacked on the equivalent of a "Most Wanted" list, with the annotation "black -- 43 years old -- reputed mass murderer -- armed -- dangerous." Thomas had been set up for a kill.
Why didn’t the senators grasp the dangerous stereotypes they had generated? Why didn’t they recognize what they were doing? Because the stereotyping was camouflaged for them by their enormous hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that took two forms -- the first, a counterfeit reverence for Clarence Thomas’ achievements and "roots"; the second, a counterfeit concern with his intellectual history and ideas.
Nothing could have been more proudly offered by committee Republicans and more flatteringly received by Democrats than the tale of the black boy from Pin Point, Georgia, and the saga of his studies at Holy Cross, his law degree from Yale, and his eventual rise to prominence. It was a Horatio Alger story that tugged at every American’s heartstrings, and even when it didn’t, it was supposed to.
The tale that Thomas himself told was accurate, and he told it with justified pride. It was the compulsive and wide-eyed gushing over it by the senators that was counterfeit and tacitly offensive to blacks. Thomas was scarcely the first small-town boy from the South to have achieved an important measure of success in the United States, and it was both patronizing and hypocritical to celebrate him as though he were. But that was just a symptom of a deeper hypocrisy: Few, if anyone at all, on the Senate committee, plus its legions of staff "researchers," actually cared a fig about Thomas’ background or "roots."
The roots of an American black are not to be found in the town in which he was born or reared. They are plunged deep in the dark loam of slavery and its ongoing and unfinished business of institutionalized racism. No senator, and apparently no staffer, even considered for a moment investigating Thomas’ real roots or his real struggle with American racism.
They should have done so, for the same reasons they should not have evaded one of their major political problems and buried it in legalized abortion. Because they all knew that white racism, both of the deeply entrenched kind and of a reactive, defensive kind, was exploding all about them in workplaces, in schools, and in police departments in response to double-standard affirmative action; because it was an issue that in one form or another might come before the Court; because it was an issue about which the nominee had thought deeply for most of his life -- and because it was an issue that was affecting, must be affecting, the real black man sitting before them.
Except...the subject for the Democrats was taboo. And Clarence Thomas wasn’t real to the Senate Judiciary Committee: He was a black pawn in their evasive political chess game; he was a collection of stereotypes. So no one, apparently, thought of doing some research on what really lay behind all the mutually congratulatory, intensely "caring" backslapping about Clarence Thomas’ roots.
Here are just a few things someone might have dug up about those roots by grabbing an old copy of The Black Bourgeoisie by E. Franklin Frazier, professor of sociology at Howard University and former president of the American Sociological Association. Here are a few of the events that were still living memories transmitted to those who reared Thomas:
- Thomas’ great-grandfather was alive in 1857 when the question
of whether the Negro was or was not only property and therefore had
or had no rights as a human being was raised. This question was
addressed in the Dred Scott case, which was taken to the Supreme
Court where Chief Justice Taney inscribed the famous answer: "A
Negro has no rights which a white man need respect."
- In 1898, close to the date of birth of Clarence Thomas’
grandparents, Rep. A. Dearmond of Missouri described Negroes as
"almost too ignorant to eat, scarcely wise enough to breathe, mere
existing human machines."
- In 1900, perhaps within Thomas’ grandfather’s memory, the
American Book and Bible House published The Negro, A Beast, which
depicted God as an idealized white man, along with a white man made
in his image and a caricature of a Negro intended to show that the
Negro was "simply a beast without a soul."
- At the same time, says Frazier, the Negro was ceaselessly
portrayed as "a gorilla dressed up as a man." The newspapers
described him as "burly or apelike." Even the white-skinned
products of intensive racial mixing were cartooned as "black with
gorilla features." This stereotyping, says Frazier, was "constantly
representing the Negro as subhuman, a beast, without any human
- In 1915, an army surgeon informed people that "many animals
below man manifest a far greater amount of real affection in their
love-making than do Negroes."
- In the early 1920s, a doctoral dissertation in Columbia University’s Department of Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law presented as "scientific" fact that the Negro was "as destitute of morals as any of the lower animals."
Such facts are integral to an understanding of Thomas’ "roots." If anyone on the Judiciary Committee had shown the slightest interest in such matters, he might have speculated on the degree to which the worst stereotyped hatreds entangled in those roots were still alive. He might have remembered the recent videotaped beating of a black man by out-of-control Los Angeles cops and the investigation that had brought to life the voices on the police radio crackling with jokes about "gorillas in the mist." He might have realized that those white cops were not joking about their night school courses in zoology. He might have wondered if Clarence Thomas were still subjected to such dangers and to such assumptions of bestiality. He might have wondered how Thomas might feel about it. And what Thomas might do if such a thing happened.
But these are questions, or speculations, one raises about a man -- and Thomas was not a man to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both the men on the committee who were hurled into panic by new ideas and the men on the committee who were hurled into panic by all ideas asked no such questions and gained no such insights. They had lost all contact with the human being they were "judging."
They didn’t even know that he was judging them. They didn’t notice that his eyes, once twinkling, had become dark and impenetrable, that his once spontaneous laugh had vanished, and that he now smiled through tightly clenched teeth, with the muscles in his jaws working tensely beneath the surface of his skin. They didn’t even realize that Clarence Thomas was terribly, terribly angry.
They didn’t observe that as each day passed, Thomas’ body had grown more rigid, that he was being held upright now only by a few powerful ideas, which he repeated like a mantra -- by the ideas of "the nuns," the first teachers to instruct him explicitly that he was the metaphysical equal of whites...by the idea of "my grandfather," the first to teach him that whatever legal and constitutional victories had been achieved for his racial group, his personal efforts, his personal achievements, his personal pride, were his own to forge...by the idea of his lifelong "dilemma" over the "fundamental contradiction" in the U.S. Constitution, which he wove, over and over again, into his answers -- the "contradiction" that had, historically, refused him membership in the human race.