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 conservatives 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 rights leaders for his heterodox views.
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: Every 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 vindicate 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 environment 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.
Reason: Isn't there a danger of idealizing his environment? He felt the sting of racism, I assume, quite often.
Thomas: Sure, there is a danger of idealizing everything. I think unfortunately we've idealized the bad, particularly about the South. The myths that are created about the South, about the way we grew up, about black people, are wrong. The things that worked have nothing to do with the things that are being offered today. We've talked more about civil rights after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than we talked about it before 1964. I grew up in the midst of all that. My grandfather was very active: he put his property up to bail the protesters out. And all of us were members of the NAACP—the local NAACP. But my grandfather was more interested in raising a family. He had two little boys to provide for. Maybe there is a danger in idealizing. But I am defending what I know occurred, and what was important to us and what worked.
Reason: A number of scholars over the last decade or so have also been trying to revive that sort of ethos. The gray eminence of it all is Thomas Sowell. When did you first become acquainted with Sowell, and did you agree with him right away or did you think he was nuts or…
Thomas: I think initially I thought he was nuts. I was just starting Yale Law School, and someone had given me Black Education: Myths and Tragedies—"God, you've got to read this crazy book. This guy is out of his mind." I picked it up and flipped through it. It really went against all the things we'd been indoctrinated to believe about the radical movement and the peace movement when we were in college. So I threw it in the trash.
I went on my merry way, challenging all sorts of things but not really aligning myself with anybody or any idea. I went out to Jefferson City, Missouri—if you ever want to be deprogrammed from any kind of a cult, go to Jeff City—and I just rethought everything. A friend of mine, I'll never forget it, called me up and said, "Clarence, there's another black guy out here who is as crazy as you are. He has the same ideas that you have. There are two of you!"
Reason: Better not get on the same plane, right?
Thomas: "I can't remember his name," he said. "It's Sowl or Sool or Sail or something." I said, "Oh my goodness." He said, "I've got the review of a book that he just wrote." So I immediately dropped everything I was doing and got the review of his book, The Economics and Politics of Race. It was like pouring half a glass of water on the desert. I just soaked it up. Then I tried to get ahold of him. I called UCLA, where he was—the word I got was nobody knew who he was. So I didn't contact him. A friend of mine noticed that he was speaking at Washington University, so I left work and went over there. He was really great. I went up to him and begged him to autograph my book.
Then he moved on to Stanford, and I bugged him. I know I bugged the man. When I got to Washington I used to hold court every morning with some of the other black staff assistants and give lectures about these things.
Reason: How were they received?
Thomas: Let's just say it was a mixed reaction. At a point, both in Monsanto and on the Hill, there were some people who when they saw me tried to evade me: at 12:15 they were trying to catch a 12:00 plane! At any rate, I consider him not only an intellectual mentor, but my salvation as far as thinking through these issues. I thought I was absolutely insane. His book was manna from heaven.
Reason: Did you talk to him before taking the job at the EEOC? Did he have any advice?
Thomas: Oh, I don't think Tom Sowell would tell anybody to join the administration. That's not his style. But I think his attitude has always been if it had to be done he'd prefer me to do it than somebody else.
Reason: I suspect that he might think that the EEOC ought not to exist. Why do you think that this agency should exist in a free society?
Thomas: Well, in a free society I don't think there would be a need for it to exist. Had we lived up to our Constitution, had we lived up to the principles that we espoused, there would certainly be no need. There would have been no need for manumission either. Unfortunately, the reality was that, for political reasons or whatever, there was a need to enforce antidiscrimination laws, or at least there was a perceived need to do that. Why do you need a Department of Labor, why do you need a Department of Agriculture, why do you need a Department of Commerce? You can go down the whole list—you don't need any of them, really.
I think, though, if I had to look at the role of government and what it does in people's lives, I see the EEOC as having much more legitimacy than the others, if properly run. Now, you run the risk that the authority can be abused. When EEOC or any organization starts dictating to people, I think they go far beyond anything that should be tolerated in this society.
Reason: Although the EEOC does issue mandates to private employers.
Thomas: No, not really. To some extent in the past there has been what I consider a social engineering phase of the agency. But what I believe is that if a person's individual rights or right to be a part of our economic system is violated under statute, we aggressively go after it. But we don't issue mandates to businesses that you've got to do this and you've got to do that.
Reason: Say I'm a private employer and I'm a racist, and no matter how qualified a black candidate is I won't look at him. Isn't it my right to hire whom I choose? Should the state force me to hire somebody?
Thomas: I guess theoretically, you're right. You say, it's my property and I can do as I damn well please. I'm able to choose my wife, I can choose my employees. I can choose where I live, I can choose where I want to locate my business, the whole bit. I think, though, that we've embodied the principle of nondiscrimination because we don't have a homogeneous society. And the problem is that we had state-imposed racism in our society. We had segregation and slavery that was state-protected, state-imposed, state-inflicted. The state can't undo the harm that was done, but I feel very strongly that if there is any role for the state, it is to protect us from others.
Let's look at it from the other side. When you prevent somebody from participating in our free society and the economics of our free society, I have some real problems. That's a right to me.
Reason: Well it's clearly immoral to do that, but should it be illegal?
Thomas: I'm torn. If I were to look at it theoretically, as you say, I would have to say I'd like the state out of my business. Putting it back in the context of reality, I can't say that. I have seen the devastating impact of the denial of economic opportunities to certain groups, including my race. For example, my grandfather—here was a man who worked really hard. He owned his own business 'cause he didn't want to work for anybody, and the state and other individuals ganged up to conspire against him. It sounds really nice and convenient to say that if he were in an equal bargaining position, if he possessed other options, he could have pursued those options. But when a group of whites who are not a part of government conspire to deprive him of that, what does he do?
Reason: You've said that quotas are basically for the black middle class. What do you mean by that?
Thomas: When you look at where the real problems are among minorities in our society, particularly blacks, it's at the bottom. It's the people who are in school systems that don't educate, neighborhoods where there is a lot of crime, drugs, the whole bit. You don't see them being affected by a quota system at IBM or Xerox or the Fortune 500. They're not going to have those jobs. They're not going to be the people who go to Yale or Harvard or Princeton. They don't even come up to the line to be included. To the extent that you should have any kind of efforts, it should be for those individuals who are on the bottom. Help the people who need help most, and don't just feed them this pablum of welfare and leave them in neighborhoods that are riddled with crime, where nobody would start a business or would go to try to live. Don't shuttle them off into public housing, which in some instances amounts to concentration camps.
Reason: Is that the nub of your criticism of the establishment civil rights movement today—that it's essentially upper-middle-class blacks who've made it, presuming to speak for people on the bottom?
Thomas: I would not characterize it as the nub of my criticism. I think it's really out of touch with reality. I came from the people that they're leading; I didn't come from the leadership ranks. I came from among the people I'm most concerned about. So did Thomas Sowell, so did Jay Parker, so did Walter Williams. We lived in the neighborhoods that they've created myths about. My grandfather—that's the guy that got me out. It wasn't all these people who are claiming all this leadership stuff.
It really bugs me that someone will tell me, after I spent 20 years being educated, how I'm supposed to think. That is offensive to me; it was offensive to me in the second grade, so you know it's offensive to me now, almost 39 years old. And I don't think that government has a role in telling people how to live their lives. Maybe a minister does, maybe your belief in God does, maybe there's another set of moral codes, but I don't think government has a role.
Reason: So would you describe yourself as a libertarian?
Thomas: I don't think I can. I certainly have some very strong libertarian leanings, yes. I tend to really be partial to Ayn Rand, and to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. But at this point I'm caught in the position where if I were a true libertarian I wouldn't be here in government.
Reason: In the early days the Black Panthers seemed to be very much decentralists, power to the neighborhood, and all that. You were sympathetic to them, weren't you?
Thomas: I was sympathetic to virtually all groups that wanted to get away from the old system. And I thought that the NAACP and the Urban League and CORE and the rest of those groups were not aggressive enough. The Panthers offered, for some of us who were young and hot-blooded and ill-tempered, another way.
Reason: In retrospect was there something good about the Panthers?
Thomas: I really don't know. At that time, 19, 20 years old, we thought there was a lot. The positive was that it did keep us thinking about change. The unfortunate thing was that it wrapped up a lot of Marxist-Leninism and a lot of violence. But I was also partial to the Black Muslims, primarily because of their belief in self-help.
Reason: It's odd that Malcolm X is not a conservative hero, isn't it? He was very good on self-help.
Thomas: Yes, but he had some very strong things to say about whites. I've been very partial to Malcolm X, particularly his self-help teachings. I have virtually all of the recorded speeches of Malcolm X.
Reason: Then you still see him as a hero.
Thomas: Let's say I'm a little bit more discriminating in what I accept and what I reject. There is too much sometimes of the antiwhite rhetoric. There is a lot of good in what he says, and I go through it for the good.
Reason: Any writers who were really influential to you when you were young and still are?
Thomas: Richard Wright. I would have to put him number one, numero uno. Both Native Son and Black Boy really woke me up. He captured a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to suppress. His novel Outside, which is his autobiographical flirtation with communism, was really good for me, because when I got to college you had a lot of radical groups that were trying to attract black students who were upset—and I was really upset—and that novel sort of prepared me to not be swept away by this kind of recruitment.
Reason: There was a very interesting article—I'm not sure if you thought it was interesting—by Juan Williams in The Atlantic where he called you a black nationalist. Do you agree with that?
Thomas: Nah. I think Juan stopped short—he got halfway to the destination and got off the train. He is certainly an excellent writer and a good person, but I'm not a nationalist. I have been angry enough in my life, and there are some points where I'm sure my attitudes approached black nationalism. I'm certain you could say the same thing about Malcolm X. But again, a lot of that grows out of that anger and that frustration and the feeling that you've got to do something, and you hear certain groups beckoning you on. You heard the Panthers beckoning you on. You heard the socialists or communists beckoning you on. You heard the radical students and the anarchists beckoning you on. The conservatives really didn't make an effort—they were hoarding the status quo.
Reason: Are there any areas where you think today that the civil rights establishment is doing really good work? By that I mean NAACP and…
Thomas: I can't think of any. I'm the wrong person to ask, because of the malice with which they have treated me. There were grand opportunities for them to focus on the proper education of minority kids, the kids who are getting the worst education, and instead they're talking about integration. God—I went to segregated schools. You can really learn how to read off those books, even if white folks aren't there. I think segregation is bad, I think it's wrong, it's immoral. I'd fight against it with every breath in my body, but you don't need to sit next to a white person to learn how to read and write. The NAACP needs to say that.
You've got a situation recently where the president of the NAACP or one of his spokespersons is defending a kid who punched out a teacher. Give me a break! How in the hell are the kids going to learn, if they can punch out the teacher? I would have died if I'd done something like that and I went back home to my grandfather—literally died. You've got to have some standards of morality, some strong positive statements about expectations—and those organizations could do that. Instead, they spend their time telling minority kids that it is hopeless out here. Why is it hopeless? Because Ronald Reagan is making it hopeless.
When Ronald Reagan is gone, why are you going to tell them that it's hopeless? Because the government isn't spending enough money. It will always be hopeless if that's the reason. You don't have any control over that. What you do have control over is yourself. They should be telling these kids that freedom carries not only benefits, it carries responsibilities. You want to be free, you want to leave your parents' house? Then you've got to earn your own living, you've got to pay your own mortgage, pay your own rent, buy your own car, and pay for your own food. You've got to learn how to take care of yourself, learn how to raise your kids, how to go to school and prepare for a job and take risks like everybody else.
Reason: Why do you think the NAACP has never really picked up on any of the opportunity themes that Walter Williams sketched in The State Against Blacks, like taxicab regulations. Why do you think they seem uninterested in things like that?
Thomas: They are pro-government. It's simple. My grandfather had an opportunity to make a lot of money during the building boom after the Korean War and World War II. He couldn't get the license. These are things that I didn't have to read The State Against Blacks to know. We saw it. A black person could not obtain an electrician's license. So what they would do is wire an entire house and then pay maybe $100 to a white electrician to connect the wire from the post to the box—about a two-minute job.
Reason: I guess it's dangerous to speak about people as a block or a monolith, but do you think a large number of black Americans share your instinctive aversion to government?
Thomas: I think that a lot of black Americans have a lot of different opinions on a lot of different things. But I know that the vote of 9 out of 10 black Americans for the Democratic Party or for leftist kinds of policies just is not reflective of their opinions. The Republican Party and the conservatives have shown very little interest in black Americans and have actually done things to leave the impression among blacks that they are antagonistic to their interests. Even as someone who's labeled a conservative—I'm a Republican, I'm black, I'm heading up this organization in the Reagan administration—I can say that conservatives don't exactly break their necks to tell blacks that they're welcome.
Reason: Is the solution for guys like you to assume really public profiles, maybe not as Republicans, but as independents or something and run for office?
Thomas: I don't think we'd ever win. Certainly the blacks won't vote for you—at least not now. And whites…I'd have to say there is still racism in our society, and there are still attitudes based on race. So I wouldn't expect that that would work anytime soon. We've gotten beyond the point where we were totally ignored—"They're just pimples on the horizon. They'll disappear and everything will be all right. It's a passing fad, like hula hoops or pet rocks." We haven't gone away. And I think the best thing we can do is not to go away. One of the things that it's forced us to do is to think through everything. I don't know one of my friends who is considered a conservative who has not had to go back and thoroughly think through everything. You do a lot of soul-searching—'cause we are not going to win any popularity contests.
Reason: You seem uncomfortable with the label "conservative."
Thomas: I'm willing to accept it for the sake of discussion, so I don't have to spend a whole lot of time on definitions, etc. But I'm just Clarence Thomas. I'm an individual. Some people say, well, you're something. Well, I'm Clarence Thomas, okay? I'm black, I know it. I'm a male, I know that. I know my biography, up to a point, and these are my beliefs now. If that adds up to your view of what a conservative is, fine.
Reason: You took this job in government, and all of a sudden people are saying terrible things about you—are you used to that now? Does it bother you when you go home at night?
Thomas: It doesn't bother me when I go home. Early on—you have to remember I was thrown on this scene. After we got back from the Fairmont Conference in 1980, it was the first time I'd had any kind of articles written about me. All of a sudden my views, or at least the journalistic synopsis of my views, are in a major paper, the Washington Post. I wasn't used to this kind of thing. I never ran for office. I rarely raised my hand in college. And suddenly, my name is in the paper. And to hear the things they said about me—Carl Rowan and some of the others. It does affect you. But it is so bad and so off-base that you just have to shake your head.
Winston Churchill was asked, Why did you become prime minister? He said, "Ambition." Well, why did you stay so long? He said, "Anger." That's one of the reasons I went back up for reconfirmation. You're not going to run me out of town. I'm going to stay right here. If I'm not reconfirmed, I'll drive a truck. I'll work in a gas station. I'll work at McDonald's.
Reason: I guess it was at the Fairmont Conference that you said, "If I ever went to work for the EEOC or did anything directly connected with blacks, my career would be irreparably ruined. The monkey would be on my back to prove that I didn't have the job because I'm black." I assume you've changed your mind?
Thomas: No. I haven't changed my mind.
Reason: The monkey on your back, is it?
Thomas: I'll be honest with you. When I was asked to go to the Department of Education as well as come here, you're dang right I was insulted. What other reason besides the fact that I was black? But then I had to ask myself, if you don't do it, what are you going to say about these issues in the future? If you had an opportunity to get in there and you didn't do it, what standing do you have to complain? As one friend put it to me, "Clarence, put up or shut up." And I wasn't going to shut up. [Laughter] There is no way anybody was going to shut me up.
And since I've been here, I've thought a lot about the rights of the individual. If the things that are being done to the individual in this city were being done by one person, we'd all think that we were living under a dictatorship. We'd all be thinking in a rebellious way about how we were going to get out from under this dictatorship. The erosion of freedoms is incredible.
Reason: Should we be thinking about rebellion?
Thomas: Well, I'm not an anarchist. But I tell you what—we should all be thinking about going to Sears and getting ourselves a tent and a survival kit! [Laughter]
I do think that our freedoms are at risk. There are very few people in the private sector and the public sector who are talking about freedoms. We're talking about interest groups, we're talking about issues, we're talking about your piece of the action, my project, this building, that building. What about freedom? What about the system or the environment that allows us to mind our own business? To live our lives, raise our families? There isn't a whole lot of talk about that.
Reason: This isn't really a big-picture city, is it?
Thomas: Ultimately somebody has to think about that. What is there about this country that will lead people to crawl through sewers, get on innertubes and float across miles of water, to sneak out in the middle of the night, to cram in under trucks and buses and other things, risk their lives going across mountains, etc.—what is it about this country that people will do all those things to come in, and what is it about the Soviet Union or Cuba or the Eastern Bloc countries that would force people to do those same things to get out?
It's not so much that we're not asking ourselves the big-picture questions—we're not asking ourselves the simple questions about what is good about our society. And whether or not we are preserving the health of our society. Are we going to wait until we lose that health to be concerned about it?
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Freedom Now II: Interview with Clarence Thomas".