Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute of Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
"My Grandfather's Son" -- The Story of an Extraordinary American Life
The story of the life of Clarence Thomas, as set forth in his memoir, My Grandfather's Son (Harper), is destined to become an American classic, not dissimilar to the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.
This book chronicles an extraordinary life and describes, as well, the education of an inquiring mind, seeking to understand the complex reality around him, and to make sense of the racial politics and ideological divisions which confront him during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s.
In an era when "Identity" politics dictated a particular political, economic, and social stance for black Americans, those individuals who persisted in thinking for themselves and followed an often lonely path to discover their own view of reality and truth were isolated and bitterly attacked.
Describing Clarence Thomas as "the freest black man in America," Shelby Steele, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, notes that:
For minorities . . . their group identity will often be the enemy of their individuality. In its insecurity, the group is naturally threatened by the impulse of some of its members to think for themselves. . . . People who veer from the group masks -- who evolve by their own lights -- start to lose their moral authority as blacks. This is why President Bush got no credit for having two black secretaries of state. Naively, he selected two black individuals. Still, the black individual is now emerging as something of a new archetype in American life -- not someone who disowns his group but someone who rejects it as master. Today there is no more quintessential embodiment of this new archetype than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Clarence Thomas was born in rural Georgia on June 23, 1948. He was abandoned by his father and didn't even meet him until he was eleven years old. His mother was left to raise him and his brother and sister on the ten dollars a week she earned as a maid. At the age of seven Thomas and his six-year-old brother were sent to live with his mother's father, Myers Anderson, and her stepmother in their Savannah home. This was a move that would change Thomas' life.
His grandfather, whom he called "Daddy," had a strict work ethic. He owned his own fuel-oil business and he immediately subjected the two boys to a regime of sacrifice -- no school sports, very little television, self-development and hard work. His response to the poverty and segregation of black Savannah was the American ethic of self-help, faith in God, delayed gratification and individual initiative.
In every way that counts, I am my grandfather's son. I even called him Daddy because it was what my mother called him. He was the one hero in my life. What I am is what he made me.
Before going to live with his grandfather, the squalor of Thomas' life was overwhelming:
Nowadays most people know Savannah from reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. To them it is an architectural wonderland full of well-heeled eccentrics and beautifully preserved 18th and 19th century houses. I didn't live in that part of town. When I was born, Savannah was hell. . . . The only running water in our building was downstairs in the kitchen, where several layers of old linoleum were all that separated us from the ground. The toilet was outdoors in the muddy backyard.
After moving in with his grandfather, life changed:
In return for submitting to Daddy's iron will . . . I lived a life of luxury, at least by comparison. . . . The home that Daddy and Aunt Tina built for themselves (and in which my mother now lives) had two bedrooms, one bathroom, separate living and dining rooms, a den and a kitchen. . . . We had our own beds, plenty to eat. . . . I had never before seen a house with such conveniences, or with an indoor porcelain toilet that worked. I flushed it as often as I could in my first months on East 32nd Street.
Daddy had become a Roman Catholic, and sent Clarence and his brother to St. Benedict the Moor Grammar School. It was run, Thomas writes:
. . . by the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, most of whom were Irish immigrants. . . . They expected our full attention and made sure they got it, dispensing corporal punishment whenever they saw fit. . . . We learned that God made us to know, love, and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him in the next. The sisters also taught us that God made all men equal, that blacks were inherently equal to whites, and that segregation was morally wrong. This led some people to call them "the nigger sisters."
A few months before his 16th birthday, Thomas decided he wanted to enter St. John Vianney to prepare for the priesthood. At that time, the schools in Savannah were still segregated, including St. John Vianney. The Catholic Church, Thomas recalls:
. . . maintained separate parishes and parochial schools for blacks, and the local church fathers seemed in no hurry to lift the color bar. No doubt they thought they were being prudent, but before long I would come to see their caution as cowardice.
Once admitted to the seminary, Thomas began to slowly adjust to the new, predominantly white, environment. He observed racism on the part of his fellow seminarians:
. . . a small group of students was given permission to move the school t.v. into a classroom to watch the Cleveland Browns play. Those were the days when Jim Brown was on the team. Midway through one of his celebrated runs, one student yelled, "Look at that nigger go." I felt as if my soul had been pierced. . . . Worse yet was the time when the same student who'd called Jim Brown a "nigger" passed me a folded note during history class. "I like Martin Luther King . . ." it said on the outside. I unfolded the piece of paper. Inside was a single word: ". . . dead."
Despite these incidents, Thomas' grades improved steadily and toward the end of the first term he won a Latin bee. At the end of his sophomore year, he asked the other seminarians to sign his yearbook. One senior wrote, "Keep on trying, Clarence, one day you'll be as good as us."
The Church's failure to take a strong stand on racism became of growing concern to Thomas:
It seemed self-evident . . . that the treatment of blacks in America cried out for the unequivocal condemnation of a righteous institution that proclaimed the inherent equality of all men. Yet the Church remained silent, and its silence haunted me. I have often thought that my life might well have followed a different route had the church been as adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now.
What finished off Thomas' religious vocation was the day Martin Luther King was shot and a fellow seminarian said, "That's good. I hope the son of a bitch dies." Daddy, however, could not accept the decision to leave the seminary. "You've let me down," he said. "I'm finished helping you. You'll have to figure it out yourself. You'll probably end up like your no-good daddy."
On his own, Thomas entered the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, one of six blacks in his class. He went through many political transformations -- from altar boy to seminary student to a campus radical and racial militant, before coming back to the values his grandfather taught him and an understanding of society which he acquired on his own.
He slowly came to oppose race-based affirmative action programs:
I didn't think it was a good idea to make poor blacks, or anyone else, more dependent on government. That would amount to a new kind of enslavement, one that ultimately relied on the generosity -- and the ever-changing self-interests -- of politicians and activists. It seemed to me that the dependency it fostered might ultimately prove as diabolical as segregation, permanently condemning poor people to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder by cannibalizing the values without which they had no long-term hope of improving their lot. . . . I began to suspect that Daddy had been right all along, the only hope I had of changing the world was to change myself first.
Thomas remembers that:
The more I read, the less inclined I was to conform to the cultural standards that blacks imposed on themselves and on one another. Merely because I was black, it seemed, I was supposed to listen to Hugh Masekala instead of Carole King, just as I was expected to be a radical, not a conservative. I no longer cared to play that game. . . . The black people I knew came from different places and backgrounds . . . yet the color of our skin was somehow supposed to make us identical in spite of our differences. I didn't buy it. Of course we had all experienced racism in one way or another but did that mean we had to think alike?
After Holy Cross, Thomas attended Yale Law School, graduating in 1974. His education continued, not only in the law but also in the racial political environment around him. "Like every other black law student," he writes:
. . . I was uncomfortably aware that blacks failed to pass the bar exam at a much higher rate than whites, and that the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund had filed lawsuits alleging that the exams they took were racially discriminatory. Lani Guinier, one of my classmates, was involved with the Legal Defense Fund, so I asked her to supply me with information about the extent of the problem. . . . At first I assumed that the disproportionate black failure rate was conclusive evidence of racial discrimination, but the more closely I looked at the facts, the more apparent it became that I was wrong. At that time each question on the bar exam was graded separately by a different scorer and each completed exam identified solely by number, thus making it impossible for the graders to tell which examinees, if any, were black.
To the Legal Defense Fund's "adverse impact theory," which held that if a neutral examination produced disparate results among the races, then it could be considered discriminatory. Thomas responds:
But I didn't buy that . . . knowing that no measurement of any part of our lives ever produced identical results for all racial or ethnic groups. To argue otherwise, I thought, diverted attention from the real culprits, the people who were responsible for the useless education these young people had received.
After law school Thomas went to work for John Danforth, who was serving as Missouri's attorney general. When Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate, Thomas followed him to Washington and later worked at the Department of Education and as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, before being named a federal judge.
Along the way he discovered the writings of leading black conservatives such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. He reports that:
One of the first people in Washington who talked sense to me abut race was Jay Parker, the editor of a new magazine called The Lincoln Review. . . . Jay was friendly, energetic, unflappable and unapologetically conservative. I'd never known a black person who called himself a conservative, and it surprised me that we rarely disagreed about anything of substance.
Thomas provides this assessment of the black conservatives who had influenced his thinking and became his friends:
Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell and Jay Parker were all smart, courageous, independent-minded men who came from modest backgrounds. Politics meant nothing to them. All they cared about was truthfully describing urgent social problems, then finding ways to solve them. Unhampered by partisan allegiances, they could speak their minds with honesty and clarity. They were my kind of black men. . . . I'll never forget the time when Jay reminded me that freedom came from God, not Ronald Reagan. For Jay politics was a part of life, not a way of life. It was an attitude I sought to emulate.
There is, of course, much in this book about Clarence Thomas' personal life, his difficult first marriage, raising his son, and his happy and fulfilling marriage to Virginia. There is, as well, a lengthy description of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the Senate, and the charges of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, which he convincingly refutes. It is his view, which the evidence supports, that he was targeted with such a vicious assault precisely because he was a black man who persisted in thinking for himself, and rejected the political correctness and liberal orthodoxy which the civil rights establishment and white liberals sought to impose upon him.
"The more I reflected on what was happening," he writes:
. . . the more it astonished me. As a child of the Deep South, I'd grown up fearing the lynch mobs of the Ku Klux Klan; as an adult, I was starting to wonder if I'd been afraid of the wrong white people all along. My worst fears had come to pass not in Georgia but in Washington, D.C., where I was being pursued not by bigots in white robes but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony. For all the fear I'd known as a boy in Savannah, this was the first time I'd found myself at the mercy of people who would do whatever they could to hurt me -- and institutions that once prided themselves on bringing segregation and its abuses to an end were aiding and abetting in the assault.
During the hearings, journalist Juan Williams wrote in The Washington Post:
Here is indiscriminate, mean-spirited mud-slinging, supported by the so-called champions of fairness: liberal politicians, unions, civil rights groups, and women's organizations. They have been mindlessly led into mob action against one man by the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights. . . . To listen to or read some news reports on Thomas over the past month is to discover a monster of a man, totally unlike the human being full of sincerity, confusion, and struggles whom I saw as a reporter who watched him for some ten years. He has been conveniently transformed into a monster about whom it is fair to say anything, to whom it is fair to do anything. President Bush may be packing the court with conservatives, but that is another argument, larger than Clarence Thomas. In pursuit of abuses by a conservative president, the liberals become the abusive monsters.
Fortunately, Clarence Thomas survived the assault upon him and triumphed over his adversaries. If the goal of our society is for each individual to go as far as his ability will take him, for each person to come to his own conclusions about political, social, and economic issues, then Clarence Thomas has lived this American Dream. This book is an eloquent testimonial to both that life and that dream, and should be read not only by those who agree with Clarence Thomas' views but, more important, by all who cherish a society in which genuine independence of thought is respected and in which excellence is given its proper reward. *
"These hostile hungers have taken their turn in dominating the history of modern man: the hunger for liberty, to the detriment of equality, was the recurrent theme of the nineteenth century in Europe and America; the hunger for equality, at the cost of liberty, has been the dominant aspect of European and American history in the twentieth century." --Will Durant
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