Cose: Why Clarence Thomas Can’t Let Go

Clarence Thomas is arguably the most powerful black man in America, one whose position as a Supreme Court justice merits more than a modicum of respect. Yet as authors Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher make clear in "Supreme Discomfort," a new biography, Thomas has yet to get his due.

Though most Italian-Americans are liberals, "they're all proud of me," conservative Justice Antonin Scalia tells the authors. Scalia's implicit question is: why do blacks not feel the same way about Thomas? Why can't Americans accept and celebrate him? For a country desperately trying to rid itself of a legacy of prejudice and discrimination, such questions are anything but trivial.

That Thomas is even on the court says much about how America has changed. He is only the second black Supreme Court justice. But instead of following in the footsteps of his predecessor and standing up for the civil-rights establishment, he has become a reliable vote for the conservative right—as he demonstrated last week in siding with the majority to uphold the ban on "partial birth" abortions. That has led many to accuse him of betraying his roots.

Thomas burst onto the national scene as an almost mythic figure: a poor black man from Pin Point, Ga., whom many expected to show special sensitivity to the dispossessed. That impression was soon laid to rest. It was also, argue Merida and Fletcher, rooted in a misunderstanding of his origins. By the standards of the segregated South, Thomas's was a relatively privileged path. His struggles were not against privation, they claim, but against snubs meted out by whites and snooty blacks.

When George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991, those slights still rankled. Thomas retained a special anger for the aristocratic, generally lighter-skinned blacks who had looked down on him. That scorn, believe his biographers, partially explains his jurisprudence, particularly his opposition to affirmative action, which disproportionately helps bourgeois blacks. Thomas's humiliating Senate confirmation hearings only made him more bitter.

Thomas had served less than a year and a half on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit when Bush nominated him to replace Thurgood Marshall. He seemed headed toward a relatively easy confirmation until Anita Hill, a former colleague, accused him of talking dirty to her. Thomas responded by charging the Senate with conducting "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." The Senate, mortified, went on to confirm him. The authors suggest that Thomas still seethes at those he believes set out to humiliate him.

The controversies that swirl around Thomas, particularly those having to do with his take on race, will probably always define him more than his legal scholarship (which has been marked by a willingness to throw out precedent in pursuit of what he believes to be the Founders' intent). Thomas all but acknowledged as much in a 1998 speech before the National Bar Association in Memphis. He denounced blind racial loyalty, even as he confessed that he was pained "to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm." But Thomas said that he had no intention of changing his ways. He defiantly asserted "my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I'm black."

It was a performance remarkable for its candor and its passion, and it provides a sense of the fascinating book Merida and Fletcher could have written had they persuaded Thomas to open up. But he refused to participate. Nonetheless, the portrait that emerges is nuanced and compelling. It will surprise some to learn that Thomas likes to relax by driving around the country (anonymously) in an RV, and that he can be refreshingly open-minded, lobbying legislators on behalf of black Democratic judicial nominees. Yet if Merida and Fletcher are to be believed, there is a tragic quality to Thomas, who "wears his blackness like a heavy robe that both ennobles and burdens him." And they question whether, despite his yearning to be free, he can ever lay that burden down.