Clarence Thomas And The National Black History Museum
Uncle Clarence Thomas was the son of a poor, Gullah-speaking family on the Georgia coast. He was not fluent in English until his adulthood, but nonetheless found his way into college and then Yale law school. He subsequently worked in the Reagan Administration and eventually was elevated to the Supreme Court. This is me slow clapping. Apparently the National Museum of African American History and Culture feels the same way, as Thomas shares an exhibit with Anita Hill with a subordinate role. How can this be when he was the second black Supreme Court justice in our nation’s history? Moreover, mainly white conservatives are having a conniption while black people are shrugging. How do we make sense of all of this?
Clarence Thomas is not a “major figure in African-American history” and to call him one demonstrates ignorance of the subject or deliberate distortion. Thomas wasn’t the first African-American Supreme Court justice, and he has not been a distinguished one. Nothing in his career or private life before his elevation to the Court would qualify as “major” in history. To call him a “scholar” is, to be generous, a stretch, as he has never held an academic position and has published exactly one law review article (in the Drake law review, when he was already on SCOTUS).
On the other hand Anita Hill brought the issue of sexual harassment, which millions of American women had experienced, into the national conversation, which led to the passage of many laws, regulations and changes in corporate policies. It’s not a surprise that curators determined her to be the more influential person in the history of American law and black history.
Thomas’ Consistent Rulings Against Blacks
In March 2015 Thomas dissented in a 5-4 decision that, thankfully, revived a lawsuit by the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus that challenged Republican attempts at packing blacks into fewer districts and diluting black political influence. More successfully, and therefore more egregiously, in June 2013 Thomas provided the fifth vote in a ruling that overturned Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, undoing vital protections for black voters. Republican-controlled states, including nearly all of the former Confederate states, immediately passed laws that disproportionately hurt black voters. North Carolina legislators even went so far as to state in writing and in plain English that the goal of their new voter ID law was to make it harder for blacks to vote. These are just two of several rulings of his.
Thomas’ Appointment Was A Slap In The Face To Black People
Another reason Thomas was subordinated in the museum is probably because his placement on the Supreme Court was a deliberate insult to African Americans by reactionary conservatives who were intent on rolling back the Civil Rights movement and making a mockery of black advancement. Unsurprisingly, Thomas’ jurisprudence is the direct opposite of what the vast majority of African Americans agree with. A prominent exhibit of Thomas would be a reminder of the racial politics about the African American experience that caused him to “replace” the universally beloved Thurgood Marshall. Most people entering the museum are repulsed to think about him and his legacy, which has done much to strengthen white supremacy in the United States. A prominent display would only reinforce this.
Make no mistake, there is no doubt conservative racial ideology that led to the appointment of Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas provided a way for conservatives to place a black face at the spearhead of their ongoing efforts to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights movement. Call it what you want, but maintaining the legal apparatus of racial inequality is racism. Conservatives like Thomas would prefer to be “color blind.” That amounts to a refusal to acknowledge the existence and perpetuation of race-based inequality. His presence in the museum is appropriate as is.