Justice Thomas’s Strange Take on Affirmative Action

Washington has always been full of young men in a hurry. Yet even in a city of strivers, Clarence Thomas stood out when he arrived in the capital at the dawn of the 1980s. Outspoken and politically astute, he had a talent for getting a notice-me quote in the newspaper, and he cultivated his unusual (at the time) status as a black Republican opposed to affirmative action. It didn't take long for Ronald Reagan, and later George H.W. Bush, to come calling with bigger and bigger job offers, despite Thomas's limited credentials. Thomas rose from junior Senate aide to Supreme Court justice in little more than a decade.

Over the years, Thomas has brushed off questions about the central contradiction of his life: how can a man who has benefited so greatly from racial preferences oppose them so staunchly for others? Thomas doesn't address the question directly in his new autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son." But he does, perhaps unwittingly, answer it. In chapter after chapter, a recurring theme seems to be that it's only affirmative action if you go looking for a job, not if it comes looking for you. Thomas writes that he rarely sought the plum positions that were offered him; he didn't even want them. Again and again in the book, he expresses his irritation that the men who ran the country simply would not let him be.

When a presidential aide called Thomas, then 32 years old, and offered him a job as assistant secretary of Education for civil rights, he did not marvel at his good fortune. Like Reagan, he believed the whole department should be abolished and wanted nothing to do with the place. What's more, he writes, "I had no background in that area, and was sure that I'd been singled out solely because I was black, which I found demeaning." Yet despite his complete lack of interest and his suspicions about why they wanted him, he took the job anyway after a friend told him he should stop talking about race and do something about it.

A year later the phone rang again. It was a White House official, asking him to become chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Again, Thomas wanted no part of it. "I couldn't think of anyone who would want the job," he writes, "nor would I advise any of my friends to take it." The agency was unloved and underfunded; the offices were filthy. Thomas told the aide he would take the job if the president himself asked him to do it. A few days later, the aide called back and said Reagan told him he wanted Thomas for the post. That was good enough. "I took a very deep breath," he writes, "then said yes."

And so it went, throughout his quick rise. When President Bush improbably sought to nominate him to the federal bench, Thomas claimed he had no interest in being a judge. "That's a job for old people," he told a friend. Besides, he worried the confirmation battle would be ugly, and he didn't want to go down as the next Robert Bork. But he accepted the offer anyway.

If Thomas really didn't want any of these jobs, why didn't he simply say no? He makes it seem like he couldn't. At nearly every significant turn in his life, he writes as though important decisions had been made for him by mysterious forces beyond his control. He could do nothing but reluctantly go along. Perhaps Thomas's sense of public service left him unable to refuse his president. But these forces also seemed to control his private decisions as well. He writes that as he walked down the aisle at his wedding, he was gripped with terror. He didn't want to get married. "I was still full of doubts, and a bolt of sharp, sickening pain shot through my body as we said our vows." He didn't think he would be a good husband and thought of calling off the wedding. But he went ahead with it anyway. Thomas was right. The marriage was a failure, and the couple eventually divorced.

Soon after getting married, Thomas enrolled in Yale Law School. Innocent of the ways of the world, he writes that he was shocked and angered to learn that he was admitted in part because he was black, not just because he was poor. But Thomas can hardly claim he was unaware of the growing acceptance of preferences on campuses across the country in the 1970s. As an undergrad at Holy Cross, where black students demanded and won a separate residence hall, he was already a firm opponent of affirmative action, which he considered a crutch. "I foresaw a time when it would no longer be fashionable to give blacks a helping hand, especially after the generation of whites who remembered segregation was gone, and it seemed just as clear to me that Hispanics and women would soon start making similar claims, thus putting them in competition with blacks." Thomas, still in college, foresaw all that, but he apparently could not foresee that law schools might take race into consideration in admitting him.

If Thomas was determined not to be judged by a lesser standard, he didn't do much to take race out of the decision. When a fellow black lawyer later tells him that he had left questions about race blank when he applied to law school, Thomas writes that he "wished with all my heart" that he'd done the same. In his eyes, his law degree would be all but worthless because others would assume that he'd gotten special treatment. He says he considered dropping out of school. But he couldn't. His wife told him she was pregnant, and they could not afford to move. Cruelly, fate had once again stepped in, this time forcing Clarence Thomas to suffer the lifelong disgrace of a Yale law degree.

In 1991, Judge Thomas, who had just a year's experience on the bench, received the biggest call of his life. It was President Bush again. Justice Thurgood Marshall had retired, and Thomas had heard rumors that he was on the short list to replace him. Thomas dreaded the idea of having to become a Supreme Court justice, he writes. He was just getting used to being a federal judge. He writes that a few days earlier, when word had gone around that another jurist, Emilio Garza, was going to get the nomination, "I wanted to click my heels and dance in the street." But the Garza rumor wasn't true, and here was Bush asking if Thomas would fly up to Kennebunkport for lunch. "Not again," Thomas thought. Of course, he could have told the president that he didn't want the job. But he was powerless to do so. "Events were overtaking me, and once again I had the impression that somebody else had seized control of my life." Thomas gave Bush the answer he wanted. "`Yes, Mr. President,' I heard my voice saying reflexively. It felt as though someone else were doing the talking for me."

For a guy who really, really didn't want the job, Thomas was very accommodating. At lunch, Bush warned him the confirmation hearings would be rough. Were he and his family up to it? "I've been confirmed four times in the past 10 years," Thomas told the president. I think we can manage once more."

This time around, even Thomas had to wonder if his race had something to do with his selection, especially when Bush overpraised him as the "most qualified nominee" for the job. "There was no way I could really know what the President and his aides had been thinking when they picked me," he writes. But it didn't take much to assure Thomas that race had nothing to do with it. White House Counsel Boyden Gray, a smooth Washington operator, told Thomas that he'd been picked because he was "competent," had been tested in battle and had a clean FBI record. That answer was good enough for Thomas.

There's no reason Thomas should have been expected to turn down the jobs simply because his race played a part in getting them. But his public opposition to affirmative action requires him to go through extraordinary—and not terribly convincing—contortions to prove that it didn't play any part at all.

But if Thomas apparently believes that it's not affirmative action if he's the one getting hired, he also seems to believe that it's not affirmative action if he's the one doing the hiring. Under attack during his confirmation battle, Thomas writes that he never dreamed his character would be called into question. During his time at the EEOC, he had "wanted to show that a predominately minority and female agency could be run as professionally as any other—and that it could be done without the benefit of affirmative action or quotas." But then, in the very next sentence, comes this: "All that was necessary, I believed, was a concerted effort to give those who had been excluded an opportunity to do their best." A textbook definition of affirmative action if ever there was one.

In the book, Thomas tells the story of one person he'd given just such an opportunity. He was still in the Department of Education when a black friend called and told him a young woman and fellow Yale Law alum named Anita Hill was looking for work. Would Thomas be willing, the friend asked, to "help a sister" with a job? Thomas didn't see why not. "Not only did I feel I had an obligation to help my fellow blacks," he writes, "but I remembered how hard it had been for me to land a job after graduating from Yale." Hill got the job, and he has regretted hiring her ever since. Is it any wonder Clarence Thomas can't stand affirmative action?