Clarence Thomas was the second African American Supreme Court justice and the first who was a conservative. The distinction is critical to understanding his career and the controversy surrounding it. Ken Foskett's Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas provides a clear and readable account of the influences that shaped Thomas from his childhood through his appointment to the Supreme Court. Although it does not definitively explain the greatest controversy in Thomas's confirmation hearings, it is a compelling account of an independent thinker whose views have increasingly influenced the highest court in the United States.
What is black conservatism? Foskett suggests that it is a belief in self-reliance, opposition to group-imposed limits, and the rejection of social programs based on assumptions of black inferiority. Thomas believed the best way to disabuse whites of stereotypical notions of black inferiority—which he felt were associated with affirmative action benefits—was through high levels of academic achievement. He came to agree with black economist Thomas Sowell that African American achievement was a result more of self-reliance than of political empowerment. Thus, Thomas doubted the efficacy of social welfare programs that, he felt, would weaken the self-reliance that had long kept black America strong in spite of social marginalization.
Thomas implemented his conservatism as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) in the Ronald Reagan administration and, later, as a judge appointed by George H. W. Bush. He angered many civil rights activists by interpreting the law literally: that is, at the EEOC he prosecuted actual discrimination against individuals but did not prosecute based on statistical disparities between one group and another. The Republican administrations felt that Thomas fit their profile of a good judicial candidate because he seemed to be inclined to use restraint and to base decisions on the original intent of the Constitution. Although reluctant to be a judge, Thomas was put on a judicial fast track. In 1990, he was nominated to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to replace Robert H. Bork. In 1991, he was nominated to replace Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Foskett places Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the context of Robert Bork's failed nomination just four years before and the successful confirmation of David Souter less than a year before. Bork was the subject of intense scrutiny and aroused the concerted opposition of liberal interest groups. Souter aroused little controversy but, later, failed to meet the conservative standards of jurisprudence of the party of the president who nominated him. Although Clarence Thomas was comparatively young at forty-three, and although President Bush did not wish to appear to be substituting one black justice for another, as if filling a quota, the candidate clearly met the criterion of a justice who sought to fulfill the original intent of the Constitution.
The administration tried to package Thomas as a Horatio Alger, stressing his modest origins in the insignificant town of Pin Point, Georgia, and his success in overcoming obscurity, poverty, and the racial divide to reach a position wherein he was poised to become one of the most powerful jurists in the United States. The nation had become a very politically conscious country, and Thomas's remarkable achievements were less important than political litmus tests. Many of the same feminist and race-conscious forces that sought to derail Bork's confirmation appeared to challenge Thomas. Abortion rights groups opposed him, the National Organization of Women vowed to defeat him, and black feminist Flo Kennedy vowed to “Bork” “that little creep.” The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) narrowly opposed him, as did the AFL-CIO. The National Bar Association of black lawyers voted narrowly against him, 128-124, and the American Bar Association gave him only a lukewarm rating. Thurgood Marshall, in a parting shot designed to discredit his successor, said that he made no distinction between a white snake and a black one.
Although early attacks on Thomas disputed his competence, ultimately his opponents sought a highly controversial issue to raise opposition to his confirmation. He was asked about his views of abortion seventy times and was frequently grilled about his record at the EEOC. After eight days of hearings—indeed, after they were declared complete—his opponents finally found the issue with which they hoped to inflame opposition. Anita Hill, former employee of Thomas at both the Education Department and the EEOC, testified in reopened hearings that he had harassed her on the job with sexual stories, innuendos, and images. Thomas, deeply hurt that someone whom he had tried to help get jobs had betrayed him, denied all of her charges. In his own testimony he referred to the proceedings as a travesty and “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who …think for themselves.”
Foskett supplies no new information on the confirmation controversy but does offer his speculations. Essentially, he states that the contradictions in testimonies by the two parties and their supporters cannot be resolved definitively. Having researched Thomas's life and interviewed friends and coworkers, Foskett believes it implausible that Thomas bullied Hill as she accused him of, even if he might have said what she alleged. Thus Foskett is willing to accept that inappropriate sexual remarks were made, but he thinks the context probably mitigated them. Ultimately, Thomas was barely confirmed by the Senate, fifty-two votes to forty-eight, gaining...
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