Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas may be considered the Court’s most conservative judge, but once upon a time he was a follower of Black activist Malcolm X.
In examining Thomas’ court decisions, political scientist Corey Robin concluded that Thomas might still have residual Black nationalist thinking.
Thomas is the second African American ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and he faces questioning during his nomination about allegedly sexually harassing former colleague Anita Hill.
Since being on the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas has voted consistently with conservatives on hot-button issues such as abortion, gun rights, voting rights, the welfare state and even race.
But Robin, author of the book, “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas,” has studied hundreds of the Thomas’s Supreme Court opinions. He said Justice Thomas was once a “pretty dedicated Black militant” and “a devotee of Malcolm X.”
Thomas grew up in Savannah, Georgia in the 1950s when racial segregation laws were still enforced. He was attracted to the Black Power movement while he was an undergrad in college. An active member in the Black Student Union, he participated in sit-ins and marches for Black rights. He was even one of Malcolm’s Children, Robin said — that was the generation of Black students influenced by Malcolm X and the Black Power movement, ABC News reported.
“He used to listen to his speeches on records, LPs, the way people used to listen to things and memorize them,” Robin told ABC RN’s Late Night Live.
“Thomas read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ in his first year at Holy Cross. He put up a poster of Malcolm in his dorm room, and he began collecting records of Malcolm’s speeches, which he could still recite from memory two decades later,” The New Yorker reported.
“I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” Thomas said, in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”
On the eve of his appointment to the Supreme Court, Thomas was still invoking Malcolm X as a witness for the prosecution against the liberal establishment.
“I don’t see how the civil-rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own,” Thomas said. “Where does he say Black people should go begging the Labor Department for jobs? He was hell on integrationists. Where does he say you should sacrifice your institutions to be next to white people?”
Thomas didn’t start veering to the conservative right until he entered Yale Law School in the early 1970s.
Many assumed he had been accepted due to an affirmative action policy, and as a result, according to Robin, Thomas felt hostility and distrust from a predominantly white institution that discredited the merit of his admission, ABC News reported.
“He doesn’t deny that he was a beneficiary of affirmative action… but the fact that the sum total of his accomplishments are clouded by that has been something that has rankled him, and in part contributes to his opposition to these programs, which he thinks stigmatizes the achievements of Black people,” Robin said. “He comes to feel like it’s more of a betrayal, the racism he encounters from northern whites as opposed to the kind he was familiar with from southern whites.”
Robin feels Yale was where Thomas discovered conservative thinking. In 1975, Thomas read “Race and Economics” by influential Black economist Thomas Sowell. The book theorizes that African Americans are always going to be on the losing end of any political struggle and that true freedom can only be found through capitalism.
“When he read this book, it was the culmination of a disillusionment with the left and (he) began his long march to the right,” Robin said.
“By the time Thomas reached the Supreme Court in 1991 he had developed into an icon of Back conservatism with a doctrine that has since informed rulings on between 100 and 150 cases a year,” ABC News reported.
Robin analyzed about 700 of Justice Thomas’s opinions to gain insights into him, and later wrote “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.”
On voting rights Thomas, the longest-serving Justice on the Supreme Court, often votes against cases that would make voting more accessible to minorities.
“(He believes that African-Americans) should stop looking to politics in general as an avenue of social transformation,” Robin said.
“One of the big reasons for his opposition to voting rights is his thinking that African-Americans have invested too much of their time, effort, hope and imagination in that kind of political activity.”
Thomas combines his renowned conservatism with some of his earlier Black nationalist thinking, according to Robin.
“There has always been a strain within the Black nationalist tradition in the United States of scepticism about the possibilities of political involvement for Black people,” Robin said.
“There’s a certain degree, you could argue, of consistency across time between his earlier days and his time on the court, on that particular position.”
Robin said he also believes that Justice Thomas’s voting patterns have been “to get African-Americans to look to the institutions of a capitalist economy” for their freedom.
“He thinks that Black people can find these little spaces in the capitalist marketplace that will allow them to accumulate resources that will then benefit the Black community,” he says. This again is in line with the self-sufficient push of the Black nationalists.
Thomas, said Robins, views government handouts and welfare payments as “a more deceptive form of slavery” that undermines the traditional role of the strong Black male.
“He believes help from the government, help from white people, undermines Black male authority, Black male discipline, Black male power, and with that undermines ultimately the Black community,” he said. “He wants to change the way Black people think, to get them to see that they have everything to lose through their allegiance to the Democratic Party.”
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Thomas’ views were solidified way before he joined the Supreme Court. Four years prior to his appointment, a nearly 40-year-old Thomas spoke of his views on race to The Atlantic.
“There is nothing you can do to get past Black skin,” he said. “I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are at what you do—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”
“Thomas’s views,” Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar said, “are now being followed by a majority of the court in case after case.”
With the recent death of the Court’s strongest liberal voice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Thomas may be the strongest voice left.