“You had to prove yourself every day because the presumption was that you were dumb and didn’t deserve to be there on merit.”
In order to distance himself as much as possible from subjects he regarded as stereotypically “black,” Clarence Thomas preferred to specialize in tax and anti-trust law, rather than civil rights and constitutional law. In the beginning, he felt that his admission to such a prestigious university as Yale was a dream come true, but over time he soon came to believe that he had notbeen selected on the basis of any individual merit. This bitterness at not being recognized as an individual, as opposed to a mere representative of a race, remained with him even after his graduation. According to a Huffington Post article:
Thomas reportedly has a 15-cent price tag stuck to his Yale law degree, blaming the school’s affirmative action policies in the 1970s for his difficulty finding a job after he graduated. …He says he was repeatedly turned down in job interviews at law firms after his 1974 graduation.
After graduating towards the middle of his class., Thomas found his first job working with Missouri Attorney General John C. Danforth, who would later turn out to be a key figure in the hearings. At Thomas’ request, Danforth set him to work on tax law issues, rather than civil rights cases and when Danforth became a US Senator in 1977, Thomas next began working as corporate lawyer for Monsanto, a multinational chemical firm based in St. Louis. The separation was brief and Thomas became a member of Danforth’s staff, the only black, a few years later, specializing in environmental and energy matters.
Despite his clear desire not to be seen as a black lawyer handling black issues, Thomas became more and more involved in the Black conservative movement. And in a big step up in his career, he was named assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education by Ronald Reagan. Less than a year later, he was named chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (EEOC)
Wikipedia provides us with a good summary of this agency’s responsibilities. The EEOC “investigates discrimination complaints based on an individual’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, perceived intelligence, disability and retaliation for reporting and/or opposing a discriminatory practice. It is empowered to file discrimination suits against employers on behalf of alleged victims and to adjudicate claims of discrimination brought against federal agencies.”
On the surface, it may seem like a surprising choice, given his ambivalent attitude over affirmative action (despite benefiting from those same programs). However, under Reagan the agency was to undergo a subtle shift away from a quota system for assessing discrimination and more toward judging each case on its individual merits. Suddenly for civil rights lawyers, it was a whole different ball game, as statistical evidence no longer seemed quite as relevant in analysing possible discrimination. Thomas’ approach and inconsistency of his views came under fire, as Ronald Suresh Roberts, writer of Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd: Counterfeit Heroes and Unhappy Truths
NAACP Legal Defense Fund having reviewed the writings and speeches Thomas made while he chaired the EEOC, commented on the “extraordinary shifts” in Thomas’ views on numerous issues. Thomas shifted a dozen times on affirmative action in half as many years (1982- 1988) Despite the instability of his views, the IDF noted, “whatever Thomas believes at a given pointed is to him an obvious eternal truth.. He insists that whatever he says, even if different than what he said before, is the only possible conclusion any responsible person could come to.”
Paradoxically, while chairman of the agency whose goal was to enforce laws against workplace discrimination Thomas objected to the attitudes of the civil rights movements, its leaders and its methods. Ronald Suresh Roberts writes:
Thomas says that passion blights the civil rights movement and its leaders, who ignoring rationality and truth, merely “bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan and whine.” While Thomas has criticized an allegedly all-powerful “civil rights aristocracy,” he insists that he has done so not primarily because of the civil rights movement’s alleged elitism but rather because the movement is “really out of touch with reality.”
It is difficult to imagine any white chairman of a agency involved in such important and sensitive work to have said anything along those lines. In fact, the ECOC was an agency born from the The Civil Rights Act of 1964. On July 2nd of that year, President Lyndon Johnson said,
“We believe that all men are created equal — yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain inalienable rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty — yet millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skins.
The reasons are deeply embedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand without rancor or hatred how all this happens. But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I sign tonight forbids it….”
Still, in the eight years at the EEOC, Thomas was given credit for improving morale and making the agency more effective.
His career took another step up when President Bush in 1989 nominated Thomas to the US Court of Appeals for the district of Columbia Circuit. Once again, Thomas’ complicated feelings about race surfaced, as Jan Crawford Greenburg for ABC news reports.
In his meetings with white Democratic staffers in the Senate, Thomas wrote, he was met with ill-concealed hostility.” He says he was “struck by how easy it had become for sanctimonious whites to accuse a black man of not caring about civil rights.”
Although Thomas has been an appeals court judge a relatively short time, Washington rumor mills began churning when Justice William Brenan stepped down on July 20, 1990. Would Clarence Thomas be nominated to replace him? Advisers to President Bush had some reservations, believing it was too soon. Instead, Bush nominated David Souter of New Hampshire. Bush had been assured by advisers that Souter would be a strong representative for the conservatives on what they believed was a liberal court. (It later proved to a something of mirage when Souter proved to be more of a moderate.)
However, the following year President George Walker Bush put forward the name of Clarence Thomas to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, who, as well as being the first black Supreme Court Judge, had also long been a strong champion for civil rights and a supporter for Constitutional protection of the individual.
Clarence Thomas, who had once wished to be judged solely on his individual merit and accomplishments, Clarence Thomas, who having served a little over one year as a circuit court judge, now considered himself worthy to preside over the highest court in the land.
In the next part of this three part series, we will see the reaction of civil right groups to the Thomas nomination, how the Bush administration went to exhaustive measures to shape the image of Clarence Thomas and the outcome of their efforts .