What I Learned From Justice Thomas | Opinion

Media coverage of Justice Clarence Thomas's recent lecture at the University of Notre Dame focused on the fact that he was speaking at all. As is often reported, the Justice almost never asks questions during the Supreme Court's oral arguments, and rarely gives public lectures.

What mattered to me, however, was not the mere fact that he was talking, but what he actually said. In this fractured America, I heard from him a potential strategy for reconciliation.

You have certainly heard the following, from many sources, and for many reasons: our country is divided. You have also heard proposals from politicians, pundits and professors for how to fix it. As a 19-year-old who still has much to learn, I cannot promise an easy solution. But I can offer the wisdom I learned from someone whose message resonated with me.

I have lived a comfortable life. I attended affluent public schools and played competitive junior golf. The Wilmette, Illinois, of my youth is a far cry from the Savannah, Georgia, of Justice Thomas's. However, we have both experienced the derision that comes with having darker skin. My parents, like Thomas's grandfather, drilled into me that I was not to let myself be defined by racial stereotypes.

The week of September 13, Thomas paid a visit to my school. Along with delivering the 2021 Tocqueville Lecture, he co-taught an undergraduate course with Professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz. I was fortunate enough to take that course and learn from the Justice.

Throughout Thomas's lecture and his time in class, he emphasized the value of education, praising the nuns who taught him as a young boy. Sent to live with his grandfather, he found comfort in books. "I was never prouder than when I got my first library card," wrote Thomas in his autobiography.

This commitment to education—established in part by "his" nuns—led Thomas to become interested in the founding principles of our country. For a young black boy born in the segregated South, analyzing the Declaration of Independence seemed like entering another world. Yet, with "clean hands, a clean heart, and a clear conscience," as the Justice often tells his law clerks, he endeavored to learn.

It is this love of learning and country that inspires me to hold the principles espoused by the founding generation near and dear to my own heart. The Justice communicated that I must never assume that the color of my skin precludes me from being committed to the founding principles of my country. Regardless of my race, I can hold to what I believe in as an American.

Clarence Thomas
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. Clarence Thomas has now served on the Supreme Court for 30 years. He was nominated by former President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and is the second African-American to serve on the high court, following Justice Thurgood Marshall. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

"In my youth, we believed in our country's aspirational motto: E pluribus unum, despite the reality of unequal treatment. In this postmodern, multicultural world the emphasis is decidedly on the 'pluribus' and not the 'unum,'" Thomas said during his lecture.

I am many things: a son, a brother, an uncle and a sophomore in college. Perhaps most importantly, though, I am an American. My father is black and originally from Haiti; he is an American. My mother is white and of Italian descent; she too is an American.

We are all uniquely and equally American because of that shared creed: E pluribus unum—out of many, one. Its 13 letters represent what once were the 13 colonies. Many individual states formed, and still form, one union. Our individual natures combine to form a national identity.

Thomas and I believe that we are more than our race. We are all unique individuals, but we are equally American. To highlight our differences, and ignore this key similarity, is to flout our national creed.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." In class, Thomas commented on his relationship with fellow Justices. He eagerly called Ruth Bader Ginsburg a "great friend," affectionately referred to Antonin Scalia as "Nino" and described Stephen Breyer as a "funny man" and a "wonderful friend."

Despite their external differences, these four distinguished Americans "live[d] together as brothers." Notwithstanding their vastly different backgrounds, convictions, life experiences and approaches to their work, they got along well with one another. So can we.

We can never allow our dissimilarities—whether racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious or political—to be our downfall. We must appreciate their presence but place our emphasis on what fuses us. As Americans, we all belong.

Brian Joseph is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.