A panel on CNN’s At This Hour on Tuesday tore into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ politically incorrect recollection of his youth. Thomas courted controversy on Tuesday when he said that the issue of race “rarely” came up while he was a child in Georgia in the 1960s. However, the justice recalled, it often did in the supposedly liberal Northeast. “The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites,” Thomas said. “The absolute worst I have ever been treated.”
The guests on CNN on Wednesday excoriated Thomas for his lack of racial consciousness, and particularly his lament that the country is more conscious of racial difference than it was, in his opinion, 50 years ago.
“What’s so remarkable about this statement that it neglects the fact that in the mid-60s, when he was a kid, you could get killed if you were a black person for speaking about race,” CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin asserted.
Columbia University associate professor Marc Lamont Hill took the like-thinking Struggle Session a step further when he asserted that, not only is Thomas racially conscious, but he has actively made life more difficult for fellow African-Americans.
“He’s had a long history of walking through doors and closing them behind him,” Hill said. “He acknowledges no part that affirmative action played in his life but he wants to close the door for others.”
Hill took issue with Thomas’ desire to eliminate race as a social issue, preferring instead to work toward a merit-based society in which racial concerns play no part. He said it was disturbing, particularly for a powerful justice like Thomas, to “make decisions on color blindness.”
“It shouldn’t be to be post-racial but post racist,” he concluded.
Let’s compare their bios:
First, Clarence Thomas:
Clarence Thomas was born in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia, a small, predominantly black community near Savannah founded by freedmen after the American Civil War. When he was a child, the town lacked a sewage system and paved roads. He was the second of three children born to M.C. Thomas, a farm worker, and Leola Williams, a domestic worker. They were descendants of American slaves, and the family spoke Gullah as a first language. Thomas’s earliest-known ancestors were slaves named Sandy and Peggy who were born around the end of the 18th century and owned by wealthy Liberty County, Georgia planter Josiah Wilson. M.C. Thomas left his family when Thomas was two years old. Thomas’s mother worked hard but was sometimes paid only pennies per day. She had difficulty putting food on the table and was forced to rely on charity. After a house fire left them homeless, Thomas and his younger brother Myers were taken to live with his mother’s parents in Savannah, Georgia. Thomas was seven when the family moved in with his maternal grandfather, Myers Anderson, and Anderson’s wife, Christine (née Hargrove), in Savannah.
Living with his grandparents, Thomas enjoyed amenities such as indoor plumbing and regular meals for the first time in his life. His grandfather Myers Anderson had little formal education, but had built a thriving fuel oil business that also sold ice. Thomas calls his grandfather “the greatest man I have ever known.” When Thomas was 10, Anderson started taking the family to help at a farm every day from sunrise to sunset. His grandfather believed in hard work and self-reliance; he would counsel Thomas to “never let the sun catch you in bed.” Thomas’s grandfather also impressed upon his grandsons the importance of getting a good education.
Thomas was the only black person at his high school in Savannah, where he was an honor student. He was raised Roman Catholic. He considered entering the priesthood at the age of 16, and became the first black student to attend St. John Vianney’s Minor Seminary (Savannah) on the Isle of Hope. He also briefly attended Conception Seminary College, a Roman Catholic seminary in Missouri. No one in Thomas’s family had attended college. Thomas has said that during his first year in seminary, he was one of only “three or four” blacks attending the school. Thomas told interviewers that he left the seminary in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He had overheard another student say after the shooting, “Good, I hope the son of a bitch died.” He did not think the church did enough to combat racism.
At a nun’s suggestion, Thomas attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. While there, Thomas helped found the Black Student Union. Once he walked out after an incident in which black students were punished while white students went undisciplined for committing the same violation, and some of the priests negotiated with the protesting black students to re-enter the school.
Having spoken the Gullah language as a child, Thomas realized in college that he still sounded unpolished despite having been drilled in grammar at school, and he chose to major in English literature “to conquer the language”. At Holy Cross, he was also a member of Alpha Sigma Nu and the Purple Key Society. Thomas graduated from Holy Cross in 1971 with an A.B. cum laude in English literature.
Thomas had a series of deferments from the military draft while in college at Holy Cross. Upon graduation, he was classified as 1-A and received a low lottery number, indicating he might be drafted to serve in Vietnam. Thomas failed his medical exam, due to curvature of the spine, and was not drafted. Thomas entered Yale Law School, from which he received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree in 1974, graduating towards the middle of his class.
Thomas has recollected that his Yale law degree was not taken seriously by law firms to which he applied after graduating. He said that potential employers assumed he obtained it because of affirmative action policies. According to Thomas, he was “asked pointed questions, unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated.”
I peeled a fifteen-cent sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale. I never did change my mind about its value.
Marc Lamont Hill (born December 17, 1978) is an American academic, journalist, author, activist, and television personality. He currently serves as an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Hill is also an affiliated faculty member in African American Studies at the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. He hosts the nationally syndicated television show Our World with Black Enterprise and online HuffPost Live. He is also a BET News correspondent and a CNN political commentator.
From what I can see, one of those men lived it and the other read about it.
I guess my problem is that I suffer from colorblindness. It’s probably because of my white privilege. I just don’t see racism everywhere like I’m supposed to.
A few years ago the Oakland Raiders had the first pick in the NFL draft. They used that pick to select a quarterback from LSU who was 6 ft 6 in tall and who weighed 265 lbs. (That is HUGE for a QB – he was almost big enough to play lineman.) He 21–4 as a starter and was named MVP of the 2007 Sugar Bowl.
His name was JaMarcus Russell, and he was black. He wasn’t the first black QB in the NFL – he wasn’t even the first black QB to play for the Raiders.
I was excited, but not because he was black. I was excited because the Raiders were badly in need of a starting QB and Russell was supposed to be a great one. When the Raiders cut Russell in 2010 I was happy, because Russell turned out to be the biggest bust in NFL history.
But not because he was black.
Supposedly my opposition to Barack Obama is based on the color of his skin. But when I think about Barack Obama I really don’t think about his race unless somebody else mentions it. I think about his politics, his competence, and the content of his character.
I wish everyone was colorblind like me.