With Him or Against Him
The black-and-white world of Clarence Thomas has nothing to do with race.
Clarence Thomas' new autobiography, My Grandfather's Son, paints a stark picture of an America in which nothing but race matters. In his telling, virtually everyone who has ever wronged him has done so because of his race. Not surprisingly, in the eyes of many of Thomas'defenders, anyone who objects to this book must also do so because of his race. But the prism of Black vs. White in America is the wrong one through which to view this book. The real black/white problem Justice Thomas reveals is his own binary worldview. Everything is good or bad; everyone is either angel or devil. You might say the justice has produced the world's longest Santa Claus list: everything in America classified as either naughty or nice.
This memoir is a painstaking accounting of the people who have supported Thomas (painted in heroic terms) and those who have tried to destroy him (bigots, idiots, or both). It's a directory of journalists he likes and dislikes, judges he admires and mistrusts. It's a detailed ledger of Thomas' many shamings (by lighter-skinned schoolchildren, or law school interviewers) and of his equal number of academic and professional triumphs. Perhaps to symbolize all this, Thomas tots up the trophies he carries with him (a warm letter from a Missouri judge he's carried "from job to job, like an heirloom") against the symbols of his persecution (his diploma from Yale Law School, onto which he stuck a "fifteen-cent price sticker" because it bore the "taint of racial preference"). There is not an inch of gray area in the justice's personal landscape.
It's not hard to have great compassion for Thomas. He is brutally open about the hardship of his early life in the Jim Crow South, his abandonment by his parents, and the tough love of the grandfather who raised him and "control[led] every aspect of our lives." You can't help but wince at the slights and humiliations—whether real or perceived—that dogged him throughout his schooling, or to feel for his personal struggles with financial hardship, a ruined first marriage, and alcohol.
Nor is it difficult to understand how a man both deeply sensitive and deeply intelligent would have had difficulty reconciling the sheer contradiction of his grandfather's teachings: That hard work and self-reliance are the keys to success, but also that college and law school education are worthless endeavors, turning Thomas into an "educated fool." The message? Try and try but know you'll fail. Which helps illuminate why it is that almost everything Thomas has achieved in his life—from law school to the Supreme Court—he has promptly devalued and disdained. As he put it upon learning of his confirmation, "Whoop-de-damn-do."
Yet even when Thomas does see good in the world, he can't help but question the motives behind it. Whites who were kind to him were "condescending." Institutions that attempted to help him (like Yale) were "tricking" and "hurting" him. Everyone is a "rattlesnake" or a "water moccasin." Their approaches may be different, but they'll strike one way or another. Thomas expresses astonishment, upon meeting his second wife, Virginia, that anyone still "thought it was possible to make the world a better place." Having set himself up to hate his oppressors and mistrust his supporters, Thomas is left all alone, leading to repeated scenes in this book of an isolated Thomas, curled up and sobbing.
Thomas' tendency to see everything as black or white is perhaps most in evident in his discussions of his grandfather, for whom the book is named. There can be no doubt that Myers Anderson was an amazing man: strong, self reliant, acidly funny, and devoted to his family. But Thomas is also deeply scarred by his grandfather's cruelty—from tossing the young man out when he dropped out of seminary, to skipping his college and law-school graduations and wedding on some unspecified principle. Anderson may have saved him from a life of ruin, but the man hugged his grandson once in his lifetime. So Thomas alternates between raging at his grandfather and lionizing him as the "one hero in my life."
Perhaps it's unfair to wish Thomas might have decoupled the personal from the political in his life. His confirmation hearing was indeed humiliating, for everyone involved. But Thomas was hardly the first justice to endure humiliating questions around a confirmation hearing. Hugo Black had to answer for his involvement with the KKK, and William Rehnquist had to answer for being a Republican poll watcher in Arizona. Nor was Thomas the first justice to face discrimination. Sandra Day O'Connor couldn't parlay her degree into a job, either. But Thomas cannot seem to avoid linking unrelated personal events to political ones. His grandfather's death occurs while he is addressing a "roomful of angry white women in Chicago." Liberal opposition to him was "a high-tech lynching for uppity black folks" and not legitimate political concern over ideology.
And maybe because he can see no shades of gray, in the end, Thomas careens back and forth in this book between seeing himself as a victim or a self-actualized hero. There is precious little in between.
The problem with black-and-white portraits is also that they produce cartoons where there might have been nuance. Thomas can caricature Anita Hill as a "mediocre" self-entitled shrew, and Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., as a "slave owner sitting on the porch of a plantation house." These portraits have all the subtlety of the worst a.m. radio. But then it appears that Thomas is either too angry or too hurt for subtlety.
But though its author sees only in black-and-white, a careful reading of My Grandfather's Son reveals many gray areas. Clarence Thomas is more complicated than you might have believed, and readers must grapple with the contradictions between Thomas' personal warmth and public rage; the ambiguity with which he views his greatest achievements; the complexity of his love for his emotionally withholding grandfather; and his ambivalence about life in the public eye. For this reason alone the book deserves a careful and nuanced reading. The enduring travesty may well be that Justice Thomas can't think about the rest of us with that same degree of subtlety and care.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Clarence Thomas on Slate's home page by Randy Snyder/AP.