Georgia Politician Slams Clarence Thomas Amid Statue Debate

A Georgia lawmaker slammed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during a debate on whether to place a statue of Thomas in the Georgia Capitol.

Democratic state Senator Emanuel Jones said Thomas is "extremely accomplished" but criticized his votes on key issues that impact people of color.

Jones mentioned he has previously expressed concern about Thomas' wife and her alleged involvement in the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

While Jones said it is "very sensitive to talk about race in this body," he noted that it could not be avoided when talking about Thomas on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Jones called Thomas an "Uncle Tom," an expression he said the Black community uses to describe a person of color who is "betraying his own community." Jones admitted that he does not know the origins of the term.

"It talks about a person who, back during the days of slavery, sold his soul to the slave masters," Jones said.

"So when we think about a person in the Black community who's accomplished but yet [whose] policies seek to subvert, some may even say suppress, the achievements and the accomplishments of people of color, I couldn't help but to think about that term in expressing my dissatisfaction with this particular legislation," he added.

Jones added that he does not expect "people of non-color" to understand the sensitivity the Black community feels about a person of color whose policies, practices, decisions and votes "we've rallied and fought against."

Uncle Tom is the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Over the years, the term "Uncle Tom" has evolved into a derogatory epithet for a Black person or a person who betrays their own race or community by participating in its oppression.

Thomas is a conservative member of the Supreme Court due to his textualist approach to interpreting the Constitution. His opinions and votes have often aligned with Republican positions on many issues, including abortion rights.

Jones said Thomas' decisions and positions do not just impact people of color but have "sparked outrage" among women and the LGBTQ community.

Justice Thomas
Above, United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas poses for an official portrait in the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court building on October 7, 2022, in Washington, D.C. A Georgia state senator called Thomas an "Uncle Tom" during a debate on a bill to erect a statue of Thomas at the Georgia Capitol. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Specifically, Jones took issue with Thomas' opinions about job discrimination against transgender people, anti-gay marriage laws and affirmative action, which directly impacts people of color.

"Not just me, but all my other colleagues, particularly my Democratic colleagues, those of color, we've all benefited in some way from affirmative action, and so has this country," he told Newsweek.

He added that stripping away affirmative action would take away opportunities from people of color.

"No one in our community is looking for a handout," he told Newsweek. "We just want that field level, but we can't level that field without these opportunities being affirmative."

When the bill was introduced last year, Jones said he took issue with enshrining Justice Thomas because of his wife, Ginny Thomas', alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol Building in 2021. He told Newsweek that, at the time, his concerns were not taken seriously.

Republican state Senator Ben Watson introduced SB 69 to place a monument in honor of Thomas within the Georgia Capitol or on its grounds. There are 31 other sponsors to the bill.

Senator Watson spoke on the floor Tuesday about Thomas and how he transcended his difficult circumstances to "achieve greatness" as a member of the Supreme Court.

"This native son of Georgia deserves a place of honor and recognition on our Capitol grounds, a place where future generations of Georgians can learn valuable lessons from his legacy and gain inspiration and belief that their lofty dreams are obtainable too in America, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born," said Watson, who represents the area where Thomas was born.

After Watson delivered his opening remarks, Jones asked him whether any members of the Black caucus would be included on the committee for the statue and noted that Thomas is a "controversial figure" in the Black community.

Jones told Newsweek that he appreciated that Watson said he understood the sensitivity of the issue and allowed him to ask questions on the Senate floor.

"I think the Clarence Thomas would certainly respect State Senator Emanuel Jones's ability to have free speech," Watson told Newsweek. "I do not agree with what he said. But I had to respect his ability for his free speech."

The Georgia state Senate voted 32-20 along party lines to approve the bill and erect a statue of Thomas. The bill now moves to the state House for debate.

To the Republican party, Jones said, "Y'all really just don't get it."

He told Newsweek that he was trying to tell the majority party that while he respects Thomas as a person, he does not respect the decisions he's made that impact people of color.

"Systematic racism is alive and real," Jones said. "I've learned early on that you have to push back against these pillars of government, particularly when cases are unjust."

Update 2/16/23, 4:30 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional comment from Emmanuel Jones and Ben Watson.