Book of the week
The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas is “a baffling figure,” said Michael O’Donnell in The Atlantic. Famously mute in the courtroom, he is also the Supreme Court’s most ebullient member in the justices’ chambers. Famously angered by the racism he’s experienced, he has spent his three decades on the court opposing policies designed to reduce discrimination. Now comes a book by a liberal political science professor attempting to decode the conservative justice’s jurisprudence, and its bold argument, at first glance, “seems almost as offensive as the Uncle Tom slurs that Thomas regularly faces.” Author Corey Robin labels Thomas’ legal philosophy “a bitter mix of right-wing revanchism and black nationalism”; he even suggests that Thomas would like to restore something of the social order of the Jim Crow era. Surprisingly, the case he constructs “carries the uncomfortable ring of truth.”
“Let’s start with the good,” said Theodore Kupfer in the National Review. Robin, a contributing editor to the socialist magazine Jacobin, is “the rare left-wing observer who takes Thomas’ political and legal mind seriously.” Rejecting the common suggestion that the justice’s silence during oral arguments is evidence that he doesn’t think for himself, Robin stresses how often Thomas has gone his own way in his written opinions and how often those opinions reflect an interest in black self-reliance that Thomas has cultivated since his 1960s college days, when he was a radical black nationalist. But even if you’ve admired Robin’s analysis so far, “this is where things start to go awry,” because he then proposes that Thomas is guided by an overarching vision of America in which racism is permanent, the right of black men to arm themselves is sacrosanct, and the punitive power of the state must be maintained in order to push black men toward productive lives as entrepreneurial community patriarchs.
In the end, Thomas’ pessimism might be the most interesting thing about him, said Julian Lucas in Harper’s. He became a conservative when he lost all faith in society’s capacity to perfect itself, and “Robin’s closing argument is that the enigmatic justice shares many foundational assumptions with the increasingly race-conscious and pessimistic Left, namely, that ‘racism is permanent, the state is ineffective, and politics is feeble.’” If you’re a young progressive who believes those things, he’s saying, you might be closer to embracing Thomas’ worldview than you think. After all, “What is the armed, insular, carcerally disciplined black capitalist America that Thomas envisions but a kind of soured safe space?” ■