What Clarence Thomas Learned from Malcolm X

Understanding the legal philosophy of the conservative Supreme Court justice.


Credit: C-SPAN

Writing in The Wall Street Journal this weekend, Fox News pundit Juan Williams praised Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as "the most influential thinker on racial issues in America today." According to Williams, Thomas "is reshaping the law and government policy on race by virtue of the power of his opinions from the bench." As Williams put it:

The principal point Justice Thomas has made in a variety of cases is that black people deserve to be treated as independent, competent, self-sufficient citizens. He rejects the idea that 21st-century government and the courts should continue to view blacks as victims of a history of slavery and racism.

Thomas certainly does reject many of the government solutions now in vogue for dealing with racial problems. But the source of that rejection is frequently misunderstood—especially by Thomas' liberal critics, who seem to think that he disfavors certain forms of affirmative government action because he believes racism to be dead and gone. New York Times columnist Charles Blow, for example, gave voice to that critique last year when he faulted Thomas for "being unable to acknowledge and articulate the basic fact that race was—and remains—a concern."

In point of fact, Thomas clearly believes that racism is a concern just as he clearly believes that the long shadows of slavery and Jim Crow continue to harm black Americans. Where Thomas differs from most liberals is in his pronounced lack of faith in the ability of ostensibly benevolent government officials to do the right thing.

Thomas made this point with great force in his 2002 concurrence in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in which he joined a majority of the Supreme Court in upholding the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Cleveland over the loud objections of the teachers unions and the broader public education establisment. "While the romanticized ideal of universal public education resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers, poor urban families just want the best education for their children," Thomas wrote. "If society cannot end racial discrimination, at least it can arm minorities with the education to defend themselves from some of discrimination's effects."

If society cannot end racial discrimination. Those are not the words of a man who sees racism as a relic of the past.

Note also that Thomas combined his negative assessment of American society with an overarching emphasis on black self-empowerment and the removal of racist government obstacles. If that combination sounds familiar, it's because it tracks so closely with the agenda of the late black leader Malcolm X, who famously urged black self-reliance as a weapon in the long war against white supremacy—and who (like Thomas) famously distrusted the white liberals of his day.

Unsurprisingly, Malcolm X turns out to be one of Clarence Thomas' personal heroes. "I've been very partial to Malcolm X, particularly his self-help teachings," Thomas once told Reason. "I have virtually all of the recorded speeches of Malcolm X."

Here's what Malcolm X said in one of those speeches:

The American black man should be focusing his every effort toward building his own businesses and decent homes for himself. As other ethnic groups have done, let the black people, wherever possible, however possible, patronize their own kind, and start in those ways to build up the black race's ability to do for itself. That's the only way the American black man is ever going to get respect.

That is not the approach favored by today's liberals, who typically place great weight on the government's role as an agent of social change. But neither is it the approach adopted by many of today's conservatives, who all too often dismiss, minimize, or ignore black complaints about the persistence of racism.

By partially following the footsteps of Malcolm X, Thomas stands apart from both camps. While he may agree with the liberals about the pervasiveness of racial injustice, he rejects most of the preferred liberal solutions. And while he often sides with the conservatives in constitutional cases, he frequently writes separately from the bench, giving voice to a distinctive legal philosophy that's steeped in black history and owes much to radical black nationalism.

I don't know if all of that makes Thomas our most influential thinker on race or not. But the fact that his thinking so thoroughly resists easy left-right categorization certainly makes it interesting, and valuable.