Lithwick: What Clarence Thomas and Palin Share

When it comes to the perils of affirmative action, there's nobody as eloquent as Justice Clarence Thomas. In both his legal writing and his autobiography, Thomas rails against affirmative action, not simply because it constitutes "reverse discrimination" but because of the crushing stigma it affixes to the "beneficiaries" (a word Thomas puts in quotation marks). In his autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son," he concedes he was admitted to Yale Law School in part because of his race, but goes on to describe the humiliation of postgraduation interviews with "one high-priced lawyer after another" in which he was "asked pointed questions, unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated." He told ABC News that "once it is assumed that everything you do achieve is because of your race, there is no way out … it is irrebuttable and it is proved to be true. In everything now that someone like me does, there's a backwash into your whole life … because of race."

One can dispute whether Thomas's impression of a "backwash" is reasonable, but nobody can argue that his most personal, passionate legal writing vibrates with this shame and anger. In a sharp dissent in a 2003 case allowing race to be used as an admissions factor at Michigan Law School, Thomas described affirmative action as "a cruel farce" under which "all blacks are tarred as undeserving." In an earlier case he wrote that such programs "stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority."

Critics have scoffed at Thomas's tendency to view affirmative action exclusively through the narrow lens of his own life, but it's clear the "badge of inferiority" has tainted a lifetime of achievement. He will never forgive America for the chances he was given or for how small it made him feel. I can't help but wonder what Thomas would say to vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who is now suffering the same stigma of affirmative action, and who shows signs of the same defensiveness and outrage that have marred Thomas's career.

Like Thomas, Palin has been blasted for inexperience, and she has fought back with claims that she is being judged not on her merits but on her gender, just as he felt he was inevitably being judged on his race. While it's possible to assert that Sarah Palin was the most qualified person in America for the vice presidency, only approximately nine people have done so with a straight face. Palin was chosen not because she was the second-best person to run America, but to promote diversity on the ticket, even the political playing field, and to shatter (in her words) some glass ceilings. When she was selected, Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes enthused: "As a 44-year-old woman, Mrs. Palin brings desperately needed diversity to the Republican ticket." That's a noble goal, but one most conservatives have disparaged for decades. The most savage bits of Thomas's Michigan Law School dissent warn against fetishizing "diversity" as an "aesthetic" concern of "elites." Thomas hates the notion of flinging the first minority you can lay hold of at a glass ceiling. The McCain campaign elevated it to priority one.

It's not just that the world mistrusts the abilities of the recipient of affirmative action, but that he learns to mistrust the world. Thomas's experience at Yale Law School taught him to doubt anyone who sought to help him, especially those "who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn't know your place." Palin has also become a recipient of the know-your-place treatment, as she enters—at this writing—her 29th day of a near media blackout. Palin has been allowed to speak to three television reporters. No press conferences. Just photo ops in fabulous shoes, all of which smells of empty tokenism. Thomas would say that in its most toxic formulation, affirmative action demands its beneficiaries be seen and not heard, and that is precisely what Palin is experiencing. Where Clarence Thomas excoriated liberals for promoting token blacks so America might become a Benetton commercial, John McCain has mastered the fine art of turning women into campaign accessories: flag pins with nice calves.

Liberals inclined to blindly support affirmative action would do well to contemplate the lessons of Palin and Thomas. Although the former exudes self-confidence and the latter seems crippled by self-doubt, both are frozen in a defensive crouch, casualties of an effort to create an America in which diversity is measured solely in terms of appearance. As a result of this simplistic sorting process, Thomas has learned to neatly divide the entire world into angels and demons. Palin casts everyone as either a supporter or a "hater." Thomas thinks that anyone who opposes him is a racist. Palin sees anyone who doubts her as sexist. There is much that is laudable about affirmative action, but its tendency to divide people in often crude ways is not. It can lead to "beneficiaries" who also see the world in crude ways, and to even cruder ways of talking about the very real gender and race disparities that continue to plague America.