Clarence Thomas casts himself in "Native Son"

How can a justice with such a keen sense of his own persecution be so blind to others'?

Published October 1, 2007 12:37PM (EDT)

In a memoir to be released today, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas equates himself with both Tom Robinson in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Bigger Thomas in "Native Son."

As a child, Thomas says he was warned by his grandfather "that I could be picked up off the streets of Savannah and hauled off to jail or the chain gang for no other reason than that I was black." As an adult, Thomas says his 1991 confirmation hearings put him "back into Bigger Thomas' world, a dark, cramped hell devoid of hope."

The hyperbole here is breathtaking: Thomas' rapid rise to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court was interrupted, ever so briefly, by allegations that he sexually harassed Anita Hill; in Richard Wright's novel, Bigger Thomas is wrongly convicted of raping and murdering a white woman and then sentenced to death for the crimes.

But even if the analogies Thomas makes are somehow apt, what's incredible is how little he has learned from them.

Writing about Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Thomas says that Robinson, on trial for raping a white woman, "was lucky to have had a trial at all" after having been saved from a "lynch mob's rope." Writing a dissent in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld in 2004, Thomas said that the president of the United States has unfettered power to declare a citizen an enemy combatant and hold him indefinitely without charges. "Undeniably," Thomas wrote, "Hamdi has been deprived of a serious interest, one actually protected by the Due Process Clause. Against this, however, is the government's overriding interest in protecting the Nation. If a deprivation of liberty can be justified by the need to protect a town, the protection of the Nation, a fortiori, justifies it."

Again on "To Kill a Mockingbird," Thomas writes that the fictional case against Robinson was "laughably flimsy, but in the Deep South you didn't need a strong case to send a black man to the gallows, and it is already clear that Tom will be convicted when Atticus goes before the jury to make his closing argument." In the 2006 case of House v. Bell, Thomas was one of just three justices who said that a death row inmate should not be allowed to proceed with federal habeas corpus proceedings despite DNA evidence that called his guilt into serious question.

Thomas recalls what Lee's Atticus Finch says about racists' "evil assumption" -- that "all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women" -- and says he knows "exactly" what Finch means because he felt the effects of that assumption during his confirmation hearings. "I, too, took it for granted that nothing I could say, however eloquent or sincere, was capable of overcoming the evil assumptions in which my accusers had put their trust," Thomas writes. In the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger, Thomas argued that the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan's law school was unconstitutional, in part because he saw no evidence that the "purported 'beneficiaries' of this racial discrimination prove themselves by performing at (or even near) the same level as those students who receive no preferences."

Thomas brushed off the university's claimed interest in "diversity," saying that all it really wanted was a better "aesthetic." "That is," he wrote, "the law school wants to have a certain appearance, from the shape of the desks and tables in its classrooms to the color of the students sitting at them."

So what Thomas portrays as such a defining issue in his own life is just a matter of "aesthetics" in everyone else's. Maybe there's more to Thomas' reflections than what we've taken away from the excerpts we've read so far. But for now, we're left bewildered: How can a justice with such a keen sense of his own persecution be so blind to that of others?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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