Rethinking Clarence Thomas

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
When I think of Clarence Thomas my first thought is not of the man himself but of Anita Hill. I vividly remember sitting in my dorm room between classes, watching her testimony, quivering with outrage. Even before Hill came forward, I had thought that Thomas should not be confirmed, given the American Bar Association’s tepid recommendation; after she came forward, I was exasperated by the way the overwhelmingly male Senate handled the allegations. When Thomas was confirmed, I bemoaned the Supreme Court’s fate to my friends. “He’s going to be on the Court forever,” I said. “He’s going to be there when we’re his age.”

Clarence Thomas was 43 then; I am 48 now. Justice Thomas is, as I predicted, still on the court, and I have spent the last twenty-eight years rolling my eyes at him. “He doesn’t even ask questions during hearings,” I say when his name comes up. Or: “His wife is terrible. Imagine if Michelle Obama hired an aide who had written ‘I hate whites.’” Or, before Antonin Scalia’s death: “He just repeats whatever Justice Scalia says.” I was quite sure where I stood on Clarence Thomas, and I saw no reason to reconsider my opinion, until I read Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.

Let me be clear: I still don’t think he should have been confirmed, and I am still mad about Anita Hill. I still think he’s been a participant in some of the most pernicious decisions the Supreme Court has ever made. And yet. I do not agree with every word of this book, but it is an illuminating and path-breaking book that should be read by everyone with an interest in the Supreme Court — even, and perhaps especially, by liberals. This is a short book with a lot to say, and it is worth a careful read. Corey Robin’s thesis is that Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence is fundamentally misunderstood and (here’s the provocative part) rooted in large part in Thomas’s commitment to black nationalism. He makes it clear at the outset that he doesn’t agree with Thomas’s legal philosophy, but he is writing an analysis, not a takedown.1

Robin’s distinction between Thomas’s skepticism of political–i.e., voting–rights and his embrace of economic rights is compelling and insightful: Thomas believes that African Americans will always be hopelessly outnumbered in the political realm, but they can make money in a (by Thomas’s lights) neutral market and use that money to wield government influence. Thomas, in other words, is leaning in on Citizens United. “If the currency of politics is money,” Robin writes, “if the primary movers of politics are men of means, what better argument could there be for African Americans of few means to withdraw from politics? Why not concentrate instead, at least for the time being, on accumulating wealth in the market? That way, African Americans might return to politics one day, only this time as men of money rather than as a movement of masses.”

Thomas focuses not on the rights of black defendants, Robin argues, but on the rights of the black community to be protected from criminals of all races.2 Thomas’s position is that the black community, in the main, suffers less from overpolicing than from neglect by the police. Robin identifies the inherent contradiction between Thomas’s limits on state power in, say, second amendment decisions while simultaneously championing harsh policing at the expense of individual rights. Again, Robin argues, this strand of Thomas’s thought goes back to his belief in personal economic empowerment as a long-term racial strategy: Thomas’s jurisprudence “empowers the policing and punishing elements of the state. But that is only a means to an end. The utopian vision that Thomas sees beyond the carceral state is the creation of a new generation of black patriarchs–terrifying enough to make their children cry and thereby to teach them how to survive another chapter in America’s long history of white supremacy.” But it’s hard to read this chapter without thinking of the many people of color who have died at the hands of police even when they have not been convicted of any crimes, but this isn’t addressed and I’m not aware of any comment Thomas has made specifically about, for example, Black Lives Matter. To my mind, this was the weakest part of the book, and I don’t think Robin sufficiently answers the question of how someone motivated by black nationalism could be so quiescent in the face of racially disproportionate policing practices.

Robin’s argument that Thomas’s decisions are motivated in large part by black nationalism and a deep-seated belief that racism is a permanent feature of American society is often convincing and always interesting. At times I felt he was stretching to make a point, or working too hard to make Thomas’s worldview seem consistent. And, frustratingly, Robin does not discuss Thomas’s decades-long second marriage to a white woman with a bent for right-wing conservative activism; she barely merits a mention. How does Thomas reconcile his belief in inherent white racism with his marriage to a white woman? How has Virginia Thomas influenced his views? There’s got to be a story there — it’s hard to believe that Thomas has completely compartmentalized his work from his home life, given his wife’s abiding interest in politics. And yet there’s no hint of it in Robin’s book. To me this felt like a missed opportunity. Anita Hill gets slightly more attention — Robin points out that (a) journalism since the infamous hearings has established the truth of Hill’s accusations but also (b) Thomas himself sincerely believed in his own innocence. But I would have loved a chapter about Thomas’s approach to cases that involve sex discrimination, and how that might intersect both with Robin’s theories about his approach to racism and with Thomas’s response to Hill’s allegations.

Still, Robin has done good work here. Perhaps because of Thomas’s rocky start to his Supreme Court tenure, liberals have a tendency to write him off as a Scalia clone, someone who functions as a reliable conservative vote without having much of interest to say himself.3 Robin has made the case, I think, that Thomas grounds his opinions differently than other conservative justices do, even if they ultimately arrive at the same result. At a minimum, a good-faith liberal reader would be hard-pressed to walk away from this book without taking Thomas’s philosophy seriously and considering the challenges it poses to progressive thought. “We may wonder whether we’re not trapped in the same historical moment as he, making sense of the same defeats of the last century in not dissimilar ways,” Robin writes. ” . . . And then we may come to a realization: that the task at hand is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.”


1 From my point of view, the book treated Thomas very fairly and engaged earnestly with his ideas; I would love to have a conversation with a conservative reader to learn whether they felt the same way. Did Robin do a good job presenting Thomas’s thinking or did he put his thumb on the scale?

2 For a different spin on a similar argument, see James Forman Jr.’s excellent Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

3 Robin points out that conservatives often made the same sorts of criticisms of Thurgood Marshall–and so one has to wonder if the tendency to dismiss Thomas is an objective assessment or the product of unconscious bias.

The 2019 Books that I Loved

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2019 could have been written by Gary Shteyngart. The president tried to buy Greenland this year. Who could have imagined reading that sentence four years ago? In 2019 the septuagenarian president’s staff photoshopped his head onto the body of a young Sylvester Stallone and then got all huffy when none of us believed it was real. In 2019 an Oscar-nominated actress went to prison for paying someone to sweeten her daughter’s SAT score. 2019 gave us an eight-way tie for first in the National Spelling Bee. Twenty-eight different people decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2019.1 In 2019 Jeffrey Epstein–credibly accused of sex-trafficking minors to a number of high-profile men–died while in police custody, spawning a thousand different conspiracy theories that spanned the entire political spectrum.2 Britain and Israel both spent most of 2019 trying to sort out who should run the countries and neither of them seem to have come up with a satisfactory answer, although Britain did manage to find time in its busy schedule to yell at its newest duchess–a biracial divorced American–for various imagined transgressions. In 2019 someone inexplicably agreed to marry Stephen Miller.3

And it wasn’t just the news that was weird: in 2019 my personal life was also extremely–well, let’s just say eventful. In April, right before the Game of Thrones premiere, my husband and I were smugly congratulating ourselves on weathering some family medical storms when we got a phone call that sent everything spiraling into chaos all over again.4 And still there was more: If you had told me on January 1 of 2019 that in less than a year I would be living in a different house in a different city with a different job, I would not have believed you. And yet here we are.

And so in 2019 I used reading mostly as an escape: with a couple of exceptions, I responded most strongly to non-fiction that allowed me to imagine a different reality and fiction that held out the prospect of a happy ending or, failing that, that offered me a pleasantly whimsical world to inhabit for a few hours. 2019 was not a year when I went in search of deep character development or narrative realism or emotional truth. In 2019 I wanted to play pretend.

Do not take that to mean that my favorite books of the year offered nothing more than escapism. No, the best books gave me everything: a different world, yes, but also beautiful prose and vividly drawn characters and original thoughts that made me put the book down and stare dreamily into the distance. What these books all have in common is that I’m still thinking about them now, weeks or months after I read them.

The list, in the order that I read the books:

  • Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken. It’s about candlepin bowling, and family, and marriage, and love. Some people didn’t like it because it isn’t super-plotty, but I loved hanging out with McCracken’s characters.
  • L. E. L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”, by Lucasta Miller. If you read Miller’s The Bronte Myth, then you know to expect great things from her latest. I have never been a scandalous woman, to my eternal regret, but this book let me imagine what it might be like to be one.
  • Golden State, by Ben Winters. I have been a Ben Winters fan since his Last Policeman trilogy. In this book he pays as much attention to plot and story as he does to world-building and the result is a captivating thriller in a world where lying is one of the most serious crimes you can commit.
  • City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Look, I get it, Gilbert is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I love her characters and I found this book wildly engaging, a story about a fun, naughty girl who unashamedly loves sex. It reminded me a bit of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, but to be totally honest, I enjoyed this one more.
  • The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. Does impeachment even matter if the president is not removed? In this account of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Wineapple makes the case that it does. She must have started this book before January 2017, because there’s a lot of research here — but it still made for awfully comforting reading while the debate over the current president’s impeachment swirled.
  • The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. A follow-up to Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Is there a bit too much fan service in this novel? Does Atwood channel Katniss Everdeen to an excessive degree? Yes and yes. I loved it anyway. I liked the way Atwood bounced off the television series, making some plot points canon while refashioning others, and you know what, the hopeful ending may not be realistic but I’ll take it.
  • Sontag: Her Life and Work, by Benjamin Moser. There are few things I love more than big fat literary biographies. This one is smart and insightful and well-written, and will make you–as Jamaica Kincaid says–never want to be great. Sontag was a marvelous writer who was also a toxic parent, friend, and lover, and this book will make you consider, among other things, whether the one was worth the other.
  • Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. OK, this one wasn’t escapism so much. On the other hand I think this is the first time I’ve ever had a best book list with two sequels on it.5 Maybe in 2019 I was trying to travel back in time? At any rate, this is Strout’s follow-up to Olive Kitteridge, a collection of short stories centering on one difficult woman that was my favorite book of 2008. The first book was insightful about love and marriage; this one is insightful about old age, loneliness, and coming to terms with yourself as you approach the end of your life.
  • Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is a pretty amazing account of a murder in 1972 that would only be solved thirty-plus years later. I cared about the victim, and I especially cared about her children, and I even found myself caring for the murderers. Along the way I learned a great deal about the IRA and “The Troubles,” about which I knew virtually nothing before.
  • The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin. I have been angry at Clarence Thomas since I watched his hearings in my dorm room in 1991.6 Now that I have read Robin’s analysis of Thomas’s judicial philosophy, I am not less angry, but I do take Thomas more seriously as a thinker. Robin’s argument is that far from being a faint echo of Antonin Scalia, Thomas has developed his own strain of conservatism grounded in black nationalism. Maybe this is not an uncommon thesis among Supreme Court watchers–I don’t read legal journals so I don’t know–but it was new to me and I found it fascinating. Another book that wasn’t really an escape to a different world, but there’s nothing I like more than a fresh perspective on a subject I thought I’d made up my mind about.

1 Although that may seem like a humorous exaggeration, it is the actual number.
2 I have to be honest, you guys, I think he probably killed himself.
3 This seems like a life mistake on par with marrying Anthony Weiner, but the heart wants what it wants.
4 Pro tip: Never smugly congratulate yourself on weathering a storm! It only tempts the universe.
5 It’s probably also the first time my list has featured three Elizabeths, but I haven’t actually checked.
6 I am also still mad at Joe Biden for the way those hearings were run, but that’s a story for another day.