[Archive Clip]: One of America's Supreme Court justices is in a major corruption scandal. And you'll never guess who. Okay, it's Clarence Thomas. [Laughter]
[Archive Clip]: Justice Thomas has had the courage to define his own approach at the cost of being misunderstood.
Julia Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is More Perfect.
[Archive Clip]: Asians should be getting into Harvard more than whites, but they don't because Harvard gives them significantly lower personal ratings. Harvard ranks Asians less likable, confident and kind.
Julia Longoria: Affirmative action is back at the Supreme Court. Asian students say they’re cheated by Harvard and UNC’s policies of quote unquote “diversity.” But while I was listening to lawyers argue, I was transfixed on one person in the room. Someone who used to never speak in Court. Now he’s the first one to speak up.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: Uh, Mr. Park. Um, I've heard the word, uh, diversity quite a few times, and I don't have a clue what it means.
Julia Longoria: Justice Clarence Thomas.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: It seems to mean everything for everyone.
Julia Longoria: Justice Thomas is not a fan of affirmative action. And I’ve always wondered why. He was the only person of color on the Court for nearly 20 years — could the Court use some affirmative action? But throughout that time, he’s always been against it.
Julia Longoria: Today, Clarence Thomas is the most senior justice sitting up there. In five more years, he could become the longest serving justice ever on the Supreme Court. And to some Americans, Clarence Thomas makes no sense.
He wants to kill affirmative action. He helped dismantle the Voting Rights Act. He accepted gifts from a Republican mega donor without reporting it. His wife urged the White House to overturn the 2020 election. And then there was the way we were all introduced to him: with the allegations Anita Hill made against him in his confirmation hearings.
On the other hand, some Americans feel like he’s one of the only ones who makes sense. That he’s restoring justice to our country, one decision at a time.
Julia Longoria: This week on More Perfect, we asked a pretty basic question: what does Clarence Thomas think Clarence Thomas is doing?
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: It pains me deeply, or more deeply than any of you can imagine, to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm. All the sacrifice, all the long hours of preparation, were to help not to hurt.
Julia Longoria: To search for an answer, we looked to what’s been hiding in plain sight over the last 40 years — his public speeches, his writings on the Court. And we talked to people who studied him, got to know him on a personal level. All to try to understand arguably the most powerful Black man in America. How his past informs the decisions he makes today.
Juan Williams: When I first heard it, I was like, wow, you know, who would guess that, you know, this Reagan appointee is such a admirer of the famous Black radical Malcolm X?
Julia Longoria: You might even say we found a Black nationalist.
Stephen Smith: That's what led me to think, hey, look, Justice Thomas really sees himself sort of as a Malcolm X, so I'll call him Clarence X.
Julia Longoria: Who believes that America is incurably racist.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: You were Black, things were changing and we were very, very upset.
Julia Longoria: And that the best hope for Black people in America lies only within themselves.
Corey Robin: There is a part of Thomas that is hard to walk away from because once you let him in the door, he starts saying certain things that you might find yourself agreeing with. And then the question is, well how do I, how do I get him out of the house then?
OYEZ THEME: All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.
Julia Longoria: Word on the street is you kind of brought Clarence Thomas to the attention of Ronald Reagan. Do we have you to thank for Justice Clarence Thomas, do you think?
Juan Williams: Boy. Holy moly.
Julia Longoria: This is Juan Williams.
Juan Williams: I'm a senior news analyst for Fox News Channel, and I formally was a correspondent for the Washington Post, for NPR.
Julia Longoria: The word on the street comes from Juan himself. He kinda put Clarence Thomas on the map. It all started in 1980. At the Fairmont Hotel.
Juan Williams: So it's a rather grand hotel, on a cliff overlooking San Francisco Bay. It's right there.
Julia Longoria: The hotel was bustling with Black academics, Black MDs, Black lawyers, Black dentists, Black political hopefuls, dressed in dark blue suits.
It was December of 1980, and Ronald Reagan had just been elected. Juan was on assignment for the Washington Post to cover something called the Black Alternatives Conference, organized by a conservative think tank. The event attracted Black republicans — who were anomalies at the time — and many disillusioned democrats.
Juan Williams: And we were in a conference room and seated at a table, white tablecloth.
Julia Longoria: At lunch he happens to take a seat at the same table as this one guy.
Juan Williams: This young, very eager and very engaging, young man wearing glasses.
Julia Longoria: He wasn’t a headliner or anything. He was an aide for a Republican senator from Missouri, who had paid his own way to be at the conference.
Juan Williams: And quite, you know, deliberate in his thinking.
Julia Longoria: And right off the bat, young Clarence Thomas came in hot.
Juan Williams: Here was Thomas saying, this is a moment when the Black community needs to realize that the Civil Rights movement seems to be stalled.
Julia Longoria: Take desegregating schools. Thomas said it’s not leading to better outcomes for Black students. He’d later write about this in reference to Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation of schools unconstitutional.
Juan Williams: He thinks, you know, everybody celebrates it, but he thinks it was wrongly argued.
Julia Longoria: Any time the government tried to help, he said, it just made things worse. And he offered the example of his sister, who he said was so dependent on government aid …
Juan Williams: She just waits by the mailbox for the mailman, and he found this tragic. Why is his sister in a position where she's just waiting for a welfare check?
Julia Longoria: Were you pushing back on his ideas?
Juan Williams: I think so, I mean the idea was to try to get him to say more. I mean, It was like, huh, this is fascinating. Why do you say that? Explain it to me. It's not like you just went and talked to the guy who runs the NAACP, this guy's the other side of the tracks here. He's the outsider.
Julia Longoria: So when it comes time to write the column about the conference, Juan ends up focusing entirely on the no-name aide, Clarence Thomas. The column runs in the morning paper.
Julia Longoria: What did Thomas think about your article?
Juan Williams: He didn't like it.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: I had never been in a newspaper before. And I saw myself on the op-ed page of the Washington Post. I thought I would die.
Juan Williams: He had never been subject to that kind of media spotlight. The response from most readers of the Washington Post was, wow, this guy is out of his mind. Why is bringing up his sister? Why is he putting her in that ugly public position?
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: There was criticism, name calling, ad hominem attacks and vilification. This was all new to me.
Juan Williams: What bothered him was the public reaction. It was overwhelming.
Julia Longoria: Not everyone criticized Thomas. President Ronald Reagan’s team was busy scouting new hires and they liked what they saw. Reagan would eventually hire Clarence Thomas to head up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the initial blowback to the article stung Thomas.
Juan Williams: I had reached out to him afterwards and he shut me down and didn't talk to me. I think it was, you know, close to six months before he agreed to have lunch.
Julia Longoria: Juan says they agree to another white tablecloth lunch. This time, at the Old Ebbitt Grill in D.C.
Juan Williams: Which is a pretty famous restaurant, still exists, kind of right next to the White House there.
Julia Longoria: And they get to talking.
Juan Williams: I remember sitting in a booth with him and he acted as if I had hurt him. And I'm like, but I just quoted you. Dude, this is what you told me. And he keeps repeating the same stuff anyway! So our relationship got back on track.
Julia Longoria: This was the first of many meetings over the years. There were lunches. Meetings in Clarence Thomas's office. Slowly, it started to look like a friendship. Juan says they'd even come over to his house.
Juan Williams: I remember we used to mess around with weights in my basement and it's rare that people ever say this, but physically, Clarence Thomas is built like a football player. He would say he backs off weights at times because he just got too bulky. And for me as a skinny guy, I was like, no, I need to get bulky.
Julia Longoria: Juan Williams learned a lot about Clarence Thomas in these conversations. About his views. About how he grew up. But the funny thing is, Clarence Thomas also learned something about Clarence Thomas through Juan' s writing about him.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: For the first time I was designated a Black conservative. This was news to me. I had been called a lot of things in my life, but never a conservative. [audience laughs]
Julia Longoria: He’d voted for democrats like George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. So How did this man, who is one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court today start out?
Corey Robin: That for me was really the beginning of the puzzle: how somebody can move from one side of the spectrum to the other without, in some ways, changing very much at all.
Julia Longoria: That’s political scientist Corey Robin. He read Juan Williams' work and went on to write his own book, “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas,” which, a former clerk told us, caught the attention of Thomas’ wife.
Julia Longoria: And he told us that Justice Thomas’ wife Ginni Thomas sent an email to a listserv of former Clarence Thomas clerks railing about how this marxist professor thinks he understands her husband better than she does.
Corey Robin: Oh, wow. That's pretty cool. I had no idea. [Julia laughs]
Julia Longoria: Corey says he used to think of Thomas as a political hack, a hatchet man for the Republican party, who just happens to be Black. But reading Juan Williams’ account and immersing himself in Thomas’ own judicial opinions, Corey started to see a completely different portrait emerge.
Corey Robin: He thinks about race all the time. That Black people get the short end of the stick in America. It is at the center of his worldview, which is rooted in his past growing up in the south.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: I always tell my wife my whole life is just one miracle after another because it should have ended tragically.
Julia Longoria: Clarence Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia, about 10 miles south of Savannah. It was a tiny community of about 100 people, first settled after the Civil War by freed Black people. Growing up, he spoke Gullah, a Creole mixture of African languages and English.
Corey Robin: His father left when I think he was very young, disappeared. His mother couldn't raise her kids. And she ultimately brought Thomas and his brother to live with her father — his grandfather.
Julia Longoria: For Thomas, living with his grandfather Myers Anderson was a huge influence on his life — it provided a blueprint for how to see the world going forward. He called his own autobiography “My Grandfather's Son.”
Juan Williams: He talks with great emotion about, you know, his grandfather doing some kind of farm labor in the back of the house and this white woman driving up.
Julia Longoria: Thomas said this woman, Miss Morgan, drove up the dirt road leading to the house in a big Buick.
Juan Williams: And you can see the dust coming from her car, hitting the tires of her car, rolling through the dirt road.
Julia Longoria: Miss Morgan got out of the car, walked up to his grandfather …
Juan Williams: Calling his grandfather “boy.”
Julia Longoria: … and insulted him in front of Thomas and his brother.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: And, and to watch him first look at us and then look back at her, then look at us again. And as little kids, you know, I think you think now what are you gonna do? And how are you gonna deal with it? You're the greatest man we know.
Julia Longoria: The choice his grandfather faced in this moment, as Thomas saw it, was between lashing out and staying calm, maintaining his dignity.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: He did the hard thing to hold his discipline.
Juan Williams: His grandfather grit his teeth and just accepted that treatment as a subservient.
Julia Longoria: His grandfather was just two generations out from slavery and he had high hopes for his grandson. He took Thomas out of all-Black public schools as a kid and put him in a private Catholic School, also all-Black, with a great reputation. But then Thomas moved to a white boarding school to prepare for the seminary to become a priest. There, Thomas was one of the only Black students and became the butt of jokes.
Juan Williams: They get into bed, the lights go out, and you know, the jokes are like, smile Clarence, I can't see, you know, like, you know, Black people's white teeth is going to illuminate the room or something.
Julia Longoria: Along the path his grandfather had laid out for him, he kept coming across racist seminarians who were not exactly Christ-like — no one spoke up to defend him.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: So what really bothered me more than anything else was the failure of other people to have the courage to stand up for the visions, for ideals, that we mouth so easily.
Julia Longoria: Then came 1968.
[Archive Clip]: Did they know about Martin Luther King?
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: It seemed that the whole world had gone mad.
[Archive Clip]: I have some very sad news for all of you. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis. [screams]
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: This event, this trauma, I could not take. Especially when one of my fellow seminarians, not knowing that I was standing behind him, declared that he hoped the SOB died. This was a man of God mortally stricken by an assassin's bullet, and one preparing for the priesthood had wished evil upon him.
Julia Longoria: In his autobiography, Thomas wrote that the church was silent on the issue of racism. And this silence haunted him. That year, he realized that no one was going to take care of him or any Black person in America.
Juan Williams: On so many levels, it puts young Clarence Thomas into a tizzy. He feels like a pinball being binged around the room here. You know, like he wants to please his grandfather. He wants to be a good Christian. He wishes this seminary was a more faithful place to all of its children, so he's sort of at a loss. And that's when he leaves seminary.
Julia Longoria: Dropping out of seminary was not part of the plan. His grandfather was so furious he kicked him out of the house. Cut him off financially.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: The life I dreamed of so often during those hot summers on the farm in Georgia, or during what seemed like endless hours on the oil truck with my grandfather, expired as Dr. King expired. Suddenly, this cataclysmic event ripped me from the moorings of my grandparents, my youth and my faith, and catapulted me headlong into the abyss. I was being consumed by the circumstances in which I found myself, circumstances that I saw as responding only to race.
Julia Longoria: Race became like a substitute religion. He left the church. Left the South altogether. Disillusioned by his grandfather's approach of quiet dignity. And went to a liberal arts college called Holy Cross. He was one of 20 Black students new to the school. And in these Black students, for the first time, he found community.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: In college, there was an air of excitement, apprehension and anger. We started the Black Students Union.
Julia Longoria: And searched for a way to make sense of a cruel world through another Black man, one very different from his grandfather.
[Archive Clip, Malcolm X]: Distinguished guests, brothers, and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, friends and enemies …
Juan Williams: I think what would really be a surprise to people is he had Malcolm X's records, and so he would listen to Malcolm X. And he has it in his memory banks. Malcolm X speeches because he would listen to them interminably.
[Archive Clip, Malcolm X]: Or just realize that once we learn to talk the language that they understand they will then get the point.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: He was somebody who identified as a Black nationalist.
Julia Longoria: This is Angela Onwuachi-Willig, now the dean of Boston University School of Law. She was one of the first academics to write about how Malcolm X and his Black nationalist ideas influenced a young Clarence Thomas.
Julia Longoria: Like walk me through, like what are Malcolm X’s ideas that sort of ring true to Clarence Thomas’ worldview?
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: This sense that integration is not necessarily the answer. That one doesn’t need to be sitting in the classroom with white people in order to learn better. The issue is unequal resources. Black nationalism is this sense that Black people are worthy and powerful and can accomplish whatever we would want on our own if we rely on ourselves and work together to achieve it.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: I was a bit of a radical, but that's what happened back then. You were Black, things were changing, and we were very, very upset
Juan Williams: This is the militant, Clarence Thomas.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: I was tired of being in the minority, and I was tired of turning the other cheek.
Juan Williams: Trying to strike out in a different direction
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: I, along with many Blacks, found ways to protest.
Juan Williams: And trying to make it clear to people who he is; demand respect for himself.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: And try to change the treatment we received in this country.
Juan Williams: You know, if you ran into him on the campus, he would not have come across to you as some sort of milquetoast, moderate, future Black conservative, no. You would've seen this radical-looking young Black man.
Julia Longoria: He saw himself as a crusader in the movement for Black Power.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: We protested. We worked in the free breakfast program. We would walk out of school in the winter of 1969 in protest.
Julia Longoria: But, as Angela points out, Black Nationalism is complex and there is overlap between Malcolm X and Black conservatism.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: Although we don’t think of Malcolm X as being conservative, I think it’s a lot of things that come with conservative Black ideology. Concepts of self reliance, economic improvement within the Black community. Degradation that comes with state-mandated segregation and state-mandated statements that African Americans are inferior. You know, those were the kinds of things you would hear Malcolm X talking about, and I think that it spoke to Clarence Thomas in part because it was resonating with everything he was experiencing in his life and what he saw around him. And I think it resonates with many Black people.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: I closed out the ’60s as one angry young man waiting on the revolution that I was certain would soon come.
Julia Longoria: On visits home to Georgia, Thomas says he’d get into horrible exchanges with his grandfather. Thomas would talk about the revolution and his grandfather would say, I didn’t raise you to be like this. After all our sacrifices, this is what you’ve become, “one of those damn educated fools.”
And Thomas would ask himself, how could a Black man like his grandfather from the deep South who had survived the worst kind of bigotry possible, refuse to admit that America was tainted, corrupt, and had to be rebuilt from the ground up?
Something didn’t add up for Thomas. His grandfather’s approach of quiet dignity didn’t protect him in seminary. But he started to notice that the revolutionary road didn’t seem to deliver for Black people either. It all came to a head at a protest in 1970.
[chanting fades up]
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: The questioning for me started in the spring of 1970, after an unauthorized demonstration in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[sounds of crowds jostling]
[Archive Clip]: There was smoke from the fires, vapor from the tear gas, and an eerie quality of unreality in familiar Harvard Square.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: Why was I doing this? Rather than using my intellect?
[Archive Clip]: When police displayed shotguns and tear gas guns, voices from the crowd shouted, “Pig!” and asked, “Why don't you kill someone?”
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: Perhaps I was empowered by the anger and relieved that I could now strike back at the faceless oppressor. But why was I conceding my intellect and rather fighting much like a brute? This I could not answer, except to say that I was tired of being restrained. It was intoxicating to act upon one's rage, to wear it on one’s shoulder to be defined by it. Yet ultimately it was destructive, and I knew it.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: So in the spring of 1970 in a nihilistic fog, I prayed that I be relieved of the anger and the animosity that ate at my soul. I did not want to hate anymore, and I had to stop before it totally consumed me. I had to make a fundamental choice. Do I believe in the principles of this country or not? After such angst, I concluded that I did.
Corey Robin: He was wrestling with something that I think the entire Black freedom struggle was wrestling with.
Julia Longoria: Corey Robin again.
Corey Robin: And so in the early or late ’60s and early 1970s, you see a lot of Black power activists at the local level sort of saying, you know, the day of marching and protest is over. We've gotta find other ways.
Julia Longoria: So Thomas takes a hard turn away from revolution and enrolls in law school.
Juan Williams: He goes to Yale Law School.
Julia Longoria: Juan Williams.
Juan Williams: And much like people talking about his silence on the high court bench, he's pretty much silent at Yale Law School. And he doesn't want any kind of acknowledgement of him as a Black activist or a Black student. He just wants to sit in the back of the class and do his work and get As.
[Archive Clip, interviewer]: What was your favorite memory as a student at Yale?
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: As far as my greatest moment — there's, there have been some singular moments that I did have at Yale — it was called graduation. [laughs] I got out of that place, man.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: He went to the most elite law school in the nation.
Julia Longoria: Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig again.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: With people from very, very privileged families, who might have made assumptions about him, and say things that are microaggressive and hurtful and harmful.
Julia Longoria: You also went to Yale, right?
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: For a PHd program.
Julia Longoria: Is your opinion of what he thinks informed by your experience there?
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: Yeah, I think there, I mean, there's, there's a, yeah [laughs].
Julia Longoria: Thomas was treated very differently at Yale than he was in Pin Point or at seminary.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: It was a different kind of racism. It was a much more subtle racism.
[Archive Clip, Malcolm X]: I think there are many whites who act friendly toward Negroes.
Corey Robin: One of the things that Malcolm X used to say — he made a distinction between the fox and the wolf.
[Archive Clip, Malcolm X]: The wolf doesn't act friendlier.
Corey Robin: The wolf is scary. Bears his teeth, is dangerous. You know what you're getting with the wolf.
Julia Longoria: But the fox seems very different from the wolf.
[Archive Clip, Malcolm X]: A fox acts friendly toward the lamb.
Corey Robin: Not so scary, but is in the end just as lethal as the wolf.
[Archive Clip, Malcolm X]: And usually the fox is the one who ends up with the lamb chop on his plate.
Corey Robin: And Malcolm X used that analogy to explain two different kinds of white people. There's the, you know, the white southern racist vicious, violent, overt.
Julia Longoria: Kind of like the white woman who strut up to Clarence Thomas' grandfather's house and called him “boy.”
Corey Robin: You know what you're getting with that kind of white person. And then there's a different kind of white person, who seems like what we call today, your ally. Seems like he or she cares about you and for you and is looking out for you, but is ultimately like the fox, just as much your enemy.
[Archive Clip, Malcolm X]: Their appetite is the same, their motives are the same. It's only their mannerisms and methods that differ.
Corey Robin: And that person, for Malcolm X is the liberal — the white liberal.
Julia Longoria: At Yale, Thomas sees foxes everywhere.
Corey Robin: One of his favorite songs in the early 1970s was that song, “smiling faces, smiling faces tell lies.” Um, “they don't tell the truth.” This was his favorite song and he'd listened to it over and over and over again.
Juan Williams: The thing that stays with me all these years later about his experience at Yale is that …
Julia Longoria: Juan Williams again.
Juan Williams: … when he went to do interviews for law firms, that all the law firms, he said wanted him to do pro bono work and that we were talking to him about what he could do, in terms of race. And he wanted none of it. He didn't want to be seen as a Black man. He wanted to be seen as a lawyer and a Yale law school graduate.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: I couldn't get a job in my state of Georgia. I looked at the firms in Atlanta. I looked at lots of places. I got zero job offers.
Julia Longoria: But eventually he did get an offer from Missouri’s attorney general.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: The biggest problem that I had with him is he was a Republican. [audience laughs] But I got over it when I had only had one job offer. [audience laughs, claps]
Julia Longoria: By 1980, Clarence Thomas says he was disillusioned by the Democrats. And their promises to legislate Black people’s problems out of existence. He was searching for a new path, one that would combine the wisdom of his grandfather and of Malcolm X. A path that leads him to the Black Alternatives Conference.
That’s how he met Juan Williams. How he got on President Reagan's radar. And eventually, how he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.
The confirmation hearing and the allegations against him could fill, and have filled, a whole other series of podcasts.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: We didn't talk about, you know, for example, Anita Hill, you know?
Julia Longoria: Yeah.
Julia Longoria: There was another line of questioning at his hearings that we don't hear much about anymore.
[Archive Clip, Senator Hank Brown]: One of the charges that has been brought against you in this nominating process is, um, that you benefited by quotas or affirmative action, but do not support them. I guess the question is directly in entry to Yale, were you part of an affirmative action quota? Were you part of a racial quota in terms of entering that law school?
[Archive Clip, Clarence Thomas]: Senator, I have, uh, not during my adult life or during my academic career, been a part of any quota. The effort on the part of Yale during my years there was to reach out and open its doors to minorities whom it felt were qualified. Uh, and I took them at their word on that.
Julia Longoria: I found that honestly on a personal level, like kind of a rude thing to ask? [laughs]Angela Onwuachi-Willig: Yeah
Julia Longoria: What do you make of that kind of question? Like, um, was he a beneficiary, you think, of affirmative action?
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: [sighs] Oh, I mean, I think, yes. But I don't mean it as a slight.
Julia Longoria: From what we could tell, Thomas was accepted to Yale in 1971 under an affirmative-action program. His graduating class of 1974 had 12 Black people in it.
And Dean Angela says it’s unlikely Thomas would have been appointed to the Court by his credentials alone. Traditionally, people appointed to the Supreme Court have a history of clerking for judges or working on lower courts.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: He didn't have all the markers that many of the other Supreme Court justices have and yet, fully capable of doing excellent work. There were clearly structural racist reasons why he didn't have a clerkship. Even now, like almost no Black people were being hired for any kind of judicial clerkships, much less Supreme Court clerkships.
Julia Longoria: I spoke to one of the very few Black law clerks there have ever been on the Supreme Court.
Stephen Smith: Justice Thomas was just so personable and kind to put me at ease.
Julia Longoria: Stephen F. Smith — now a law professor at Notre Dame — got the job to clerk for Clarence Thomas in 1993, just two years after he was appointed.
Stephen Smith: And it was just – it's almost like, you didn't even know you were interviewing. Because I was just sitting there as a young guy, I can't believe I'm in the Supreme Court.
Julia Longoria: He might've seen himself in Clarence Thomas. They both came from humble beginnings in the South.
Stephen Smith: There was just natural points of affinity like that, in addition of course to being both Black, and on the conservative side of things. That's a one year job. And then the time just flew by. We've stayed in touch off and on.
Julia Longoria: Smith wrote an article called “Clarence X” in 2009 that claimed Justice Clarence Thomas was a Black nationalist. At least, a version of a Black nationalist, and that Thomas had retained his Malcolm X roots as a jurist.
Stephen Smith: By and large, people left and right, were completely blind to this. And on the Right, totally blind before I wrote my article. Corey Robin, wrote a book recently on Justice Thomas endorsing the idea that Justice Thomas has a Black nationalist streak.
Julia Longoria: You know, Corey Robin
Corey Robin: Apparently I'm a Marxist professor who pretends to understand Clarence Thomas better than his wife. [Julia laughs]
Stephen Smith: I'm not a Marxist, but I had written something very similar in the “Clarence X” piece, but that just shows you even she doesn't see it. She's married to the guy and she doesn't see it. He's a Black nationalist.
Julia Longoria: Do you know if Justice Thomas was upset about the book or about your article at all?
Stephen Smith: I don't know what he thought about the book, and I, I know he was not upset about the article. In fact, it’s kind of funny. I sent it to him and he wrote me a note back and hoped I was doing well. And then he signed it, Clarence X. So …
Julia Longoria: Wow.
Stephen Smith: So I don't think he was …
Julia Longoria: He was not opposed to it. [laughs]
Stephen Smith: I don’t think he objected to the comparison, yes. [chuckles]
Julia Longoria: Stephen Smith makes the claim that Clarence X, Black nationalist, is on full display in his supreme court decisions.
Julia Longoria: If you were gonna tell the story of Clarence Thomas in one Supreme Court case, where would you focus?
Stephen Smith: The Michigan affirmative action cases really just show, you know, his Black nationalist thinking. I think it's undeniable.
Julia Longoria: After the break, we travel back in time, to the University of Michigan. When Clarence X was in the minority decision. The dissent that could be today’s majority opinion.
Julia Longoria: From WNYC Studios, this is More Perfect. I’m Julia Longoria, And we are back.
[RADIO STATIC - MUSIC CHANNELS CHANGING]
Julia Longoria: The year is 2003. And just like this current term in the Supreme Court.
[CHANNELS CHANGING - STATIC DROPS OUT]
Julia Longoria: There were two affirmative action cases the Court was considering. Both at the University of Michigan. White students versus Administrators.
Stephen Smith: I just remember reading his opinions, and just saying, wow, he is saying things in these cases that nobody else is saying, number one.
Julia Longoria: Former Thomas clerk Stephen Smith again.
Stephen Smith: And number two, when he says those things none of the other conservatives are signing on. So they're voting the same way on these racial issues that come before the Court. But Thomas has a unique take.
Julia Longoria: So if you were telling the movie version of this case, how does it start?
Corey Robin: [laughs] Oh gosh, that's a hard one.
Julia Longoria: Corey Robin says if affirmative action the movie were made by white conservatives, he knows exactly who the main character would be.
Corey Robin: They think about the white victim of affirmative action.
[Archive Clip]: Can we get you up closer to the mics? Why do you think what happened to you was wrong?
[Archive Clip, white student]: I think that racial discrimination is wrong. Diversity is about your character and your experiences. It's not about your skin color.
Corey Robin: They think about that white ethnic kid, you know, maybe whose father was a factory worker, you know, who's Polish or Italian. That's not where Thomas begins. It doesn't begin with a white law student. He really begins with a white administrator.
Julia Longoria: Thomas' movie stars the white person picking who gets into the University of Michigan.
[Archive Clip]: Is Mary Sue Coleman here?
Corey Robin: They're those liberal racists that Malcolm X warned us about.
[Archive Clip]: Now they're gonna want you to say your name.
[Archive Clip, Mary Sue Coleman]: Yes, I'm Mary Sue Coleman. I'm president of the University of Michigan.
Corey Robin: These administrators, why do they want affirmative action? Is it because they care about Black people? No way. And he says, you know, the first thing you have to know about these people, their first commitment above all else, is to elitism. Exclusivism.
[Archive Clip, Mary Sue Coleman]: We're a highly competitive institution, where we have many, many more students than can possibly be admitted to the university. And I feel sorry when everybody doesn't get in.
Corey Robin: They want their law school to be really hard to get into.
[Archive Clip]: It's getting much harder to get into a top school and nearly impossible to get into the Ivys today.
Corey Robin: The harder it is to get in, the more of a kind of elite preserve you have.
[Archive Clip]: At Harvard, only 3.4% of all applicants were accepted.
Corey Robin: You know, when those statistics come out …
[Archive Clip]: Columbia's rate dropped to 3.7%.
Corey Robin: … 4%, 5%, 6% ...
[Archive Clip]: Really a record low for both institutions.
Corey Robin: … they love that stuff. They love it because the lower your acceptance rate is, the more exclusive you are.
[MUSIC SWELLS, DROPS OUT]
Corey Robin: I hope this is filmic enough, um…
Julia Longoria: You're making movies, Corey [LAUGHS]
[MUSIC ZINGS BACK IN]
Corey Robin: And if they truly wanted to open up the institution, to students of color, to Black people — and again, I'm speaking in Thomas's voice — If that's what they cared about most, the simplest, easiest way to do that is to get rid of the LSAT. We know that the LSAT reproduces, a kind of racial skew. And it's not because Black people are less intelligent than white people. These tests are designed in a certain way, because white people have access to tutors. So get rid of the goddamn LSAT.
Julia Longoria: University of Michigan Law School is a top 10 law school. Administrators want the school to stay above the rest.
Corey Robin: I teach at CUNY.
Julia Longoria: CUNY, where Corey teaches, serves a huge population. It’s not trying to be elite.
Corey Robin: CUNY is a genuinely multiracial institution, and my classrooms look like the kind of classrooms that defenders of affirmative action claim they want. But the University of Michigan doesn't want to be like CUNY. It wants to be elite. So then the question is, if we're gonna be elite and diverse, how do we do it? And why do we want to be diverse? And here, Thomas, I think, starts hitting very close to the bone. He says, because you want the look of a certain classroom — aesthetics. It's kind of a shocking word when you think about it. Because what he's saying is you want your ruling class to look a certain way. You want a world that looks kind of like what we used to call a Benetton ad, right? Multiracial, multicultural. And Thomas, I don't even know if he uses exactly these words, but there's a suggestion, like, they wanna look hip. And that's what it's really about. And so then the question is, how do we maintain our elitism and our exclusivity, members-only? And get that kind of racial aesthetic that we're looking for? Enter affirmative action.
Stephen Smith: This is exploitative, right? You're exploiting Blacks.
Julia Longoria: Professor Stephen Smith again.
Stephen Smith: You're not saying, we're giving minorities a chance to prove themselves at this higher level and to benefit from the greater instruction available at that level. You're saying, we need them here so that we're a more elite institution. And so Thomas says, that's exploitative that you're choosing Black and minority applicants through affirmative action not because you want them there or because they'll benefit from being there, but simply to make the class quote, “look right.”
Corey Robin: And for Thomas, like, that's what the story of affirmative action is all about, is enhancing the discretionary power of white elites to choose which Black person is gonna sit at the table with them. And, you know, this is to use a, you know, triggering, uh, for him. Um, it reminds him of a, you know, what it was like at Yale Law School. And ultimately I think it makes him think of just the story of white America.
Julia Longoria:To Thomas, you know what you’re getting with the blatant racism of a Southern white woman calling your grandfather “boy.” He prefers that to the hidden racism of the white administrator. It’s disguised as benevolence and assumes Black people can only succeed with white people’s help.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: Any effort, policy or program that has as a prerequisite, the acceptance of the notion that Blacks are inferior is a non-starter with me.
Julia Longoria: Where do you think his argument falls apart if, if it does for you?
Corey Robin: On this particular issue?
Julia Longoria: Corey Robin again.
Julia Longoria: Yeah. Yeah.
Corey Robin: Um. Um so, my answer to where, you know, how would you counter him or where he goes wrong, I think once you went down that argument about diversity, I think then you are vulnerable. And I think there, Clarence Thomas is kind of right.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: I think he believes he's setting the record for what will eventually be declared to be right.
Julia Longoria: Dean Angela Onwauachi-Willig again.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: But I think he's wrong. It's way more complicated, right? Schools are thinking about how do they get students in the door? What tuition people are gonna pay there? How do they operate?
Julia Longoria: Angela would know, she's a law school dean. She says these days, one of the big arguments people make against affirmative action is that these kids who are applying, they might not get into Yale or University of Michigan, but they'll get in somewhere.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: And so the response really to that is that there's something meaningful about having access to the University of Michigan Law School and the ways in which it can launch someone's career and the way that other schools may not be able to launch someone's career.
Julia Longoria: Her point is elite institutions matter. And if we make them diverse, that's better for the country.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: The beauty of being able to be in higher education institutions that are diverse is that that's one of the few places in our very, very residentially segregated society where people of different backgrounds come together.
Julia Longoria: The subtle racism that Clarence Thomas went through at Yale — in a den of Malcolm X foxes — is a fine price to pay.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: One of the realities of that is because everybody's lived in their own segregated bubbles, people say and do things that are often unknowingly, unintentionally, offensive and hurtful. Particularly for those who, historically, found themselves on the margins or on the outside of society. And it is one of the necessary pains that we have to go through as a society to get better.
Julia Longoria: Angela says diversity is worth it. But Corey Robin says, diversity is the wrong word.
Corey Robin: There was a different possible answer, which was essentially reparations. The reason why Black people deserve affirmative action is look at all the ways in which they've been held back?
Julia Longoria: Affirmative action shouldn't be about creating the shiniest brochure with a token hijabi and Black person laughing on a lawn. It should be about righting real wrongs that have been done in our country.
Julia Longoria: Yeah, I mean, it seems like affirmative action is this band-aid in a way that distracts us from solving the real systemic problems.
Corey Robin: Right.
Julia Longoria: Yeah.
Corey Robin: Um, now of course, you know, well, I, I would say, you know, Thomas, once we start talking about those systemic problems, you're talking about, you know, economic redistribution, a whole bunch of other things that he wouldn't buy either.
Julia Longoria: That’s Corey Robin, “the marxist professor who thinks he knows Thomas better than his wife."
Corey Robin: So, um, I think there are some people who might be sympathetic to him, but you know, they should understand like, uh, he's not buying the rest of the package either.
Julia Longoria: Digging into Thomas’ decisions, he seems to start with ideas that Malcolm X and many Black people might agree with.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: It's interesting because so many of the ideas themselves are things that I might say in a room with my friends or I’ve heard certainly from many Black people who would identify as liberal as well. We just come out differently in terms of what we thik the solution or the approach should be.
Julia Longoria: But then, he makes a big turn. A turn that ends with him siding firmly in the camp of white conservatives like Scalia and Alito.
Some examples: There’s a 1999 decision Chicago v. Morales.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: I remember that sticking out to me.
Julia Longoria: A city law let local police break up groups that include anyone they, quote, “reasonably believed” to be a gang member. The Supreme Court’s majority struck down that law, saying it was too vague and violated Chicagoans’ right to due process. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: I remember reading the Morales opinion and thinking, oh, this is a really interesting angle, because he is asserting things that you hear within African American communities.
Julia Longoria: Thomas writes: “Gangs fill the daily lives of many of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens with a terror that the Court does not give sufficient consideration.”
Julia Longoria: Thomas admits Black people are some of the biggest victims of violence. But — reasoning that loitering isn’t a Constitutional right — his solution is to give the police latitude to crack down on criminals harder.
Julia Longoria: Before that: a 1993 case in Houston called Graham v. Collins. This time, Thomas was in the majority. A jury sentenced a Black 17-year-old to death after convicting him of murdering a white man. He always said he was innocent. But the question before the Court was should the jury consider the defendant’s troubled childhood, which might reduce his sentence? The Court basically said, no. And he was executed. In his opinion, Thomas says juries are racist. He even quotes Justice Thurgood Marshall, who said giving juries too much discretion would be, quote, “an open invitation to discrimination.” Thomas goes on to say that a mandatory death penalty scheme would be a fine way to address this problem.
Julia Longoria: And finally: voting rights. Black voters and the NAACP sued a Georgia county in 1994 over an election system they claimed diluted the Black vote. They said it violated the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights law meant to protect Black voters from all the ways white people were suppressing their vote. Thomas’ opinion is scathing and sweeping. He says assuming that Black voters want to vote for a Black candidate flattens Black people. The Court might as well say that all Black voters think alike. He then goes on to say, there’s no proof that the Black vote in the county HAS been diluted because Black people don’t necessarily share political goals. And even if there was proof, he says, the Voting Rights Act doesn’t cover that. The point of the act isn’t to give courts the power to interfere in elections. The only right the law gives Black people is the right to cast a ballot. Nothing more.
Julia Longoria: What is Justice Thomas's dream vision of America, do you think?
Stephen Smith: Well, I mean, I think he probably would readily agree with with Martin Luther King's dream, right? In that he has optimism.
Julia Longoria: It's honestly kind of surprising to hear you call Justice Thomas an optimist. And I'm trying to think why. It seems like the Black Nationalist perspective is one that kind of takes for granted that white people or Americans — America — will always be racist. And that, I guess, strikes me as a pessimistic worldview.
Stephen Smith: Well, so yeah, if you focus on that part, that is a pessimistic outlook. Although, you know, I don't think Black nationalists are not, they don't have fixed and unchangeable views on that. But I think Thomas' view, even though racism exists, Black people can still prosper and succeed; that we are not fated to fail. I think that is an optimistic point of view. And Justice Thomas pointed out, has pointed out in some of his writings, like, hey, even during Jim Crow, right? When the state was unconstitutionally and explicitly arrayed against us and our progress, Black people still did amazing things, right? There were success stories, you know, that happened. We had Black doctors, we had Black nurses, we had Black lawyers. We had a vibrant Black middle class. So I think at the bottom, Black nationalism is optimistic in that sense. We're here to stay. We're not gonna pack up and leave. And we can prosper here regardless of what white people think about us.
Corey Robin: Now, you can call that optimistic, and I understand exactly why Professor Smith calls it optimistic, but I think we have to step back and ask ourselves, you know, what is the optimistic story? Thomas says growing up under Jim Crow was about as close to a totalitarian society as the United States has ever come. And the kind of spirit that both Smith and Thomas described, you know, reminds me of kind of like the way Russian dissidents used to talk. That, um, amidst these conditions, Black people survive. And I see that as an extraordinarily bleak vision.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: Can I split the baby and say that it is both pessimistic and optimistic, but interestingly in a way that's divided by race. Optimistic about Black people's potential, but pessimistic about white people's potential.
Julia Longoria: Mm-hmm. What do you, where do you fall on that personally?
Angela Onwuachi-Willig: [laughs] Where do I fall? Um, I think I am optimistic about all of our potential to change.
Julia Longoria: Optimist or pessimist, Clarence Thomas in all his complexity has been invisible to many of us. On both the left and right, we’ve refused to see him. Instead, we say he’s just like his white conservative colleagues on the Supreme Court. Or we see his wife, Ginni. And lately, we focus on the gifts from his ultra-rich friends.
But looking directly at Thomas, it’s clear he’s not trying to hide who he is or what he believes. Like Malcolm X or MLK, he has his own American Dream: a vision where Black people can succeed without any help, especially not from white people. He calls white help the most devastating form of racism.
He doesn’t acknowledge the gifts he’s received along the way.
But this is the vision that’s driven him on the highest court of our country. He might remain invisible to some of us, but he’s here to stay.
[Archive Clip, Justice Clarence Thomas]: Look, you will always remember me. I am the termite in your basement when you're on vacation. I am at work. [crowd laughs] And I will never, ever go. I will be there and that's where I've been. They can go and have spring break. They can go and backpack in Europe. And I'm that termite working away. Thank you all. Thank you so much. [applause]
Salman Ahad Khan: More Perfect is a production of WNYC Studios.
This episode was produced by me, Salman Ahad Khan, and Julia Longoria. It was edited by Emily Botein and Alyssa Edes.
Fact-check by Naomi Sharp.
Special thanks this week to Kenya Young, Tara Grove, Jeannie Suk Gersen, Andre Robert Lee, David Krasnow, Jerome Campbell, Lauren Cooperman, Ivan Zimmerman, Tasha Sandoval, Kevin Merida, Bruce Shapiro, Kate Howard and Tony Cavin.
The More Perfect team also includes Emily Siner, Whitney Jones, Gabrielle Berbey and Jenny Lawton.
The show is sound designed by David Herman and mixed by Joe Plourde.
Our theme is by Alex Overington, and the episode art is by Candice Evers.
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Supreme Court audio is from Oyez, a free law project by Justia and the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School.
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