Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Black Man's Courage

Clarence Thomas was born in 1948 into a African-American family in Pin Point, Georgia. Like his life, his hometown in many ways encapsulates the Black experience in America: the town was founded by ex-slaves at the end of the Civil War, was an example of communal interdependence and diligent self-reliance, and was bitterly poor, with no paved roads or sewage system.

The life of Clarence Thomas is a microcosm of the African-American experience: sent by his parents to live with his grandparents after the family home burned to the ground; inspired by his grandfather's diligence and inventiveness as a small business founder; enrolled as the only Black student in his high school.

Learning from the role models of creative independence and communal mutual support, Thomas saw that African-Americans were being harmed by the "Great Society" programs meant to help them. Although well-intentioned, these entitlements and public assistance programs dampened exactly that spirit of creative independence which inspires inventiveness and ingenuity in economics, business, and engineering: young Black men were informed that, rather than try to excel in a profession or technical field, they could rely on the "system" to support them. Clarence Thomas saw that these programs also starved the communal spirit of the African-Americans, who, instead of helping each other by means of the local neighborhood or town, were taught to turn to a social worker or government office.

Determined to return autonomy and dignity to Black communities, Clarence Thomas, after graduating from Yale law school, served as Assistant Attorney General of Missouri. In this role, he writes,

as a criminal-appeals attorney, I would have to argue in favor of keeping blacks in jail. I still thought of most imprisoned blacks as political prisoners. I had no facts to back up this opinion, a reflex response left over from my radical days, and didn't need any: I knew that anything "the man" did to black people was oppression, pure and simple. What changed my mind was the case of black man convicted of raping and sodomizing a black woman in Kansas City after holding a sharp can opener at the throat of her small son. Perhaps he and the woman he'd brutalized had both been the victim of racism, but if that were so, then she'd been victimized twice, first by "the man" and then by the thug. This case, I later learned, was far from unusual: it turned out that blacks were responsible for almost 80 percent of violent crimes committed against blacks, and killed over 90 percent of black murder victims. This was a bitter pill to swallow. Until then I'd ignored the obvious implications of black-on-black crime rates. After I worked on that case, I knew better than to assume that whites were responsible for all the woes of blacks, and stopped throwing around the word "oppression" so carelessly. I also grew more wary of unsupported generalizations and conspiracy theories, both of which had become indispensable features of radical argument.

Redesigning his legal thought, Clarence Thomas discovered that African-Americans, deprived of the dignity of responsibility, deprived by the dependency culture generated by the welfare state, were being turned into thugs by the LBJ-era "Great Society" programs which were supposed to ennoble them. Putting this discovery into action meant, for Clarence Thomas, that when he happened to be relocating to a new state, he was also realigning his political views. This came at a high price: the Democrat Party views Black voters as its property. Anger - and sometimes violence - is directed at any African-American who is skeptical of the Democrat Party. Clarence Thomas recalls summoning his courage to defy the white leaders of the Democrat Party who assumed that should always vote for their candidates:

In the fall of 1980, I changed my voter registration from Missouri to Maryland - and registered as a Republican. I had decided to vote for Ronald Reagan. It was a giant step for a black man, but I believed it to be a logical one. I saw no good coming from an every-larger government that meddled, with incompetence if not mendacity, in the lives of its citizens, and I was particularly distressed by the Democrat Party's ceaseless promises to legislate the problems of blacks out of existence. Their misguided efforts had already done great harm to my people, and I felt sure that anything else they did would compound the damage. Reagan, by contrast, was promising to get government off our backs and out of our lives, putting an end to the indiscriminate social engineering of the sixties and seventies. I thought that blacks would be better off if they were left alone instead of being used as guinea pigs for the foolish schemes of dream-killing politicians and their ideological acolytes. How could I not vote for a man who felt the same way?

Years later, as a Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas would take steps to curb the government's tendency to interfere in the lives of its citizens. His rulings and opinions support the individual's rights to freedom of religion, to freedom of speech, and to freedom from government intervention in economic activities. Thomas has also shielded the political processes inside each state from federal interference.