Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave a speech this week at Florida’s Palm Beach Atlantic University and, as Chris Moody reports at Yahoo News, complained that “we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school.... Everybody is sensitive.” Citing his own experiences, Thomas added, “the worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites.... The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”
It’s not the first time Thomas has said something controversial about race and it won’t be the last. But his comments do highlight a significant fact about the conservative justice. His complaints about “race and difference-conscious[ness]” notwithstanding, Clarence Thomas is himself extremely race conscious.
Take a look at Thomas’ speeches and writings, and you’ll find them steeped in African American history and tradition. His statement about “northern liberal elites,” for instance, echoes Malcom X’s famous observation in his Autobiography that unlike the "honest" Southern white, who "bares his teeth to the black man," the "Northern white man, he grins with his teeth, and his mouth has always been full of tricks and lies.” As Thomas told Reason back in 1987, “I've been very partial to Malcolm X, particularly his self-help teachings. I have virtually all of the recorded speeches of Malcolm X.”
That emphasis on race frequently discomfits Thomas’ liberal opponents since it challenges the standard narrative equating the advance of racial equality with the triumph of progressive politics. Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, for example, once criticized Thomas for finding “a racial angle on a broad array of issues, including those which appear to be scarcely related to traditional civil rights, like campaign finance or gun control.”
Given the fact that America’s earliest gun control laws were put in place to keep blacks unarmed, and that the 14th Amendment was drafted in 1866 in part to prevent the former Confederate states from disarming the freedmen, it turns out to be Toobin whose views are “scarcely related” to the topic at hand, not Thomas.
As for the point about race and campaign finance, Thomas also has history on his side.
In recent years, Thomas has taken issue with the post-Citizens United valorization of the Tillman Act of 1907, a pioneering campaign finance regulation sponsored by Democratic Sen. Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman of South Carolina. As Thomas likes to point out, Tillman made an early name for himself as the leader of a Klan-like terror group that killed and menaced black Americans. “Tillman’s contributions to campaign finance law have been discussed in our recent cases on that subject,” Thomas wrote, referring to Justice John Paul Stevens' dissent in Citizens United. “His contributions to the culture of terrorism that grew in [the post-war South] had an even more dramatic and tragic effect.” Indeed, Thomas later told an audience at Stetson University, “Go back and read why Tillman introduced that legislation...as I hear the story he was concerned that the corporations, Republican corporations, were favorable toward blacks, and he felt that there was a need to regulate them.”
Despite his comments earlier this week, Clarence Thomas has repeatedly shown that he too understands the need for race consciousness in American politics.