Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a conundrum to many Americans. Widely considered the court’s most conservative member, and only the second black justice, Thomas campaigned for civil rights and benefited from affirmative action as a young man. He now decries government policies based on the ideals that shaped him as a youth, saying they amount to racial discrimination.
Thomas rarely speaks from the bench and is disinclined to give interviews, but he spoke Friday in St. Louis, saying his law career began here in May 1974 when he limped into town in his aging Volvo on the way to join Missouri Attorney General John Danforth’s staff in Jefferson City. Thomas spoke to an annual gathering of The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis.
The justice’s success in life stemmed from the many opportunities that opened for blacks because of the civil rights movement. He piggy-backed on the sacrifices of others yet, from the bench, seems more inclined to pull away the ladder for those who follow. At what point did Thomas allow conservatism to cloud his sense of compassion?
Thomas’ path from Pin Point, Ga., to the United States Supreme Court is a striking example of how all citizens benefit from equal opportunity and access to education. Thomas, 68, was born into poverty and raised by his grandfather, who encouraged self-reliance and urged him to pursue a religious life. He did for a time, graduating in 1971 from the College of the Holy Cross, a private Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass., and then heading to Yale law school.
Thomas acknowledges that he was accepted into law school partly because of race-conscious admissions programs but has blamed those policies for devaluing the achievements of black graduates. He contends that his law degree is worth only “15 cents” because of it.
Thomas says affirmative action is discriminatory and as wrong as segregation or slavery. He dissented from the court’s landmark 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger upholding the use of race as a factor in state university admissions decisions. But Thomas might not be a Supreme Court justice if the government had not used social engineering to redress discriminatory practices of the past.
Danforth, a moderate Republican credited with helping nudge the longtime blue state of Missouri into the red zone, introduced Thomas on Friday. He did not characterize Thomas’ political views but showed that some wounds may never heal when he said he stood by Thomas during “the dreadful ordeal of his confirmation.” The comment was a reference to sexual harassment accusations by Thomas’ former aide, Anita Hill, that nearly derailed his Supreme Court confirmation in 1991.
Our nation is richer because of Thomas’ court participation. Sadly, he now embraces philosophies that could close the door for those who aspire to follow in his footsteps.