Commentary: Clarence Thomas Remains Out of Step

The Supreme Court’s only Black justice compares support of affirmative action with support of slavery.

Posted: 06/26/2013 03:15 PM EDT

  (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Since the time he burst on the American stage in the early 1990s, Clarence Thomas has always seemed a little, well, peculiar.

He always seemed like the kid with the inferiority complex who was relentlessly picked on in school by the other students. Once he grew up, the kid had a determination to pay back everyone who reminded him of those who picked on him, while never quite relinquishing the complex.

He is an oddity. Thomas has one of the most glittering educational and professional resumes, with degrees from the College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School. As an associate member of the United States Supreme Court he is in a position to weigh in on the most important issues of our time. But he is so self-conscious, so reluctant to speak in public that he utters not a word in the deliberations in the high court on which he sits.

He is a product of affirmative action, one who benefited from educational opportunities intended to ensure a place for African-Americans in institutions where they had been traditionally excluded. Yet, he looks at such programs with a loathing that borders on sheer hatred. And he seems to be bent on doing everything in his power to ensure that opportunities such as the one he received to attend Yale will never be afforded to any other Black student if he can possibly help it.

He is critical of the Catholic Church for what he calls its failure to deal with racism in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. Yet he seems oblivious to the discrimination very much in vogue in today’s world when it comes to voting rights.

This week, Thomas outdid himself by stating that the University of Texas at Austin's affirmative action program was akin to slavery and segregation.

"Slaveholders argued that slavery was a 'positive good' that civilized blacks and elevated them in every dimension of life," Thomas wrote in his separate opinion on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. "A century later, segregationists similarly asserted that segregation was not only benign, but good for black students."

He continued: "Following in these inauspicious footsteps, the University would have us believe that its discrimination is likewise benign. I think the lesson of history is clear enough: Racial discrimination is never benign," Thomas wrote in the 20-page opinion.

"The university’s professed good intentions cannot excuse its outright racial discrimination any more than such intentions justified the now-denounced arguments of slaveholders and segregationists."

Supporting affirmative action is like supporting slavery? Can he truly be serious? How on earth does the support of expanding educational opportunities for minority students translate into keeping them in bondage? The madness never seems to stop when it comes to Thomas.

In the end, the justices decided to punt on deciding the controversial affirmative action case, sending it back to the lower court in Texas.

By now, many progressive Americans have long written Thomas off as one who will always take the most extreme, conservative position, no matter what the case. Yet, even after the years since he was appointed to the court by President George H.W. Bush, there remains a profound disappointment and irritation that Thomas was selected to fill the seat once held by Thurgood Marshall, an icon of the civil rights movement. He makes a mockery of all that Justice Marshall stood for.

But Thomas’ loyalty to radical conservative thought is not easily overlooked, particularly when there are close votes on the high court as there was this week in the heartbreaking 5-to-4 decision to strike down the heart and soul of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1965.

And so, Thomas remains there, a constant reminder of a how out of step a Supreme Court justice can be with the American mainstream.

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