60 Minutes Trades Journalism for Book Promotion in Thomas Interview
As I sat in a local pub watching my beloved Steelers about to take their first lost on the chin by the Arizona Cardinals I was all set to finish my Blue Moon and head in for the evening. But CBS made me do a double take as they featured the upcoming episode of 60 Minutes to appear immediately after the game. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was to appear and that changed my immediate plans. You see I am no fan of Justice Thomas or specifically his decisions while on the court. I always saw his votes as well as his writings as being anti civil rights and rather hateful towards African Americans as well as the poor in general. But that didn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, Justice Thomas is the second man of African descent to ever don the robe of a Supreme Court judge and he rarely is seen making public statements. I wasn’t a golf fan either until I saw Tiger Woods play. When he won his first Masters in 1997 I had to watch. In my eyes Tiger was a black man - all “Cablinasian” talk aside. Incidentally the first time I ever saw Tiger Woods was on 60 Minutes as well when he was a child. But I digress. The point is that good, bad, or indifferent, I had to stop what the heck I was doing and pay attention to what the man would say.
Upon watching the piece it was revealed that Thomas is selling a book called “My Grandfather’s Son”. The piece featured Thomas in an endearing light away from the court by traveling to his Georgia hometown where he was raised, to his love of traveling in an RV cross country which include stopping overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots. He and interviewer Steve Kroft talked of his past as a former black radical as well as his seminary experience when he studied to be a Catholic priest. They talked of his Yale degree that he “keeps in the basement” because it didn’t help him get a job and his switch to the Republican Party in 1980 to follow Ronald Reagan. He talked of Anita Hill, his perception within the African American community, the Supreme Court itself and most of all the enduring lessons he leaned from the firm hand of his grandfather. If you did not get a chance to see the piece, you can read the transcripts or view the video on the posted link below this column.
I found the 60 Minutes piece interesting and it left me somewhat conflicted about the man whose mere name is a lightening rod to both conservatives and liberals alike. In a sense I felt the humanity of a man scarred by racism and segregation. I saw a man who seemed to be hurt and disappointed in being disconnected from mainstream black America. I saw a man who seemed to be of both deep thought and deep pain. I saw a man who is human. But despite those qualities that resonate with me from a humanistic standpoint, I must maintain a Socratic perspective as I ponder this figure that I find both fascinating if not tragic.
Let’s start with 60 Minutes the program itself. I’ve watched the show since the 70s, and historically I was accustomed to critical reporting and analysis as they offer not only one side of a story, but also some alternative views and perspectives as well. In the tradition of greats such as the late Ed Bradley, critical feedback is given during the midst of the conversation and if a question is not answered a follow up would ensue. This was not the case as Steve Kroft tossed batting practice softball questions to Thomas as if he were an adoring fan. When he told Justice Thomas as if speaking for African Americans, "They feel that you received some preferential treatment because you were black. And that now, you are trying to say that they, that blacks, that other blacks shouldn't have it. That you've pulled the ladder on black people after you’ve climbed to the top," Thomas simply laughed and said, "Steve, that's silly. Come on.” Notice he did not answer the specific points of the question. Neither did his elaboration on the point offer any further insight. And Kroft didn’t dig any deeper in trying to get an answer.
When the subject of his own race was discussed, Thomas said that he considers himself a man first, then a US citizen who happens to be black. When asked how much of his life was determined by his race, Thomas compared it to his height. “I'm 5'8 1/2" tall. I don't know how much of my life is determined by being 5'8 1/2" tall. It's just a part of who I am.”
I was not the only one who held the opinion that this was a poor answer for someone of Thomas’ caliber. Professor Cornel West of Princeton put it this way, “When he talks about being 5'8.5", I don't know of American history where they enslaved people who were 5'8.5". I don't know of American history where they lynched people who were 5'8.5".” Thomas uses double-speaks numerous times on the subject of race. In one breath he talks about the difficulties of racism throughout school and career, and then in the next breath he shuns it all as if he were taking off a rain coat. To quote National Urban League head Marc Morial, “I think that he contradicted himself, because his legacy of his grandfather and studying to be a priest and how he feels about being at Yale and the difficulty with getting a job means he has internalized the pain of exclusion and discrimination. Yet when asked about it directly, he diminishes it. He sets it aside as though it is only like being 5'8" or only like being male and American.”
Even as he gave the sorry reasoning for his lack of concern for African American issues, he said, “Does Justice Scalia care for the concerns of Italians?” Justice Scalia doesn’t have to care for the concerns of Italians. The last time I checked Italians for the most part enjoy the same status as whites in this country. For Thomas to compare the plight of the African Americans to the plight of my Italian brothers was an ignorant if not foolish thing to say.
Clarence Thomas has benefited over and over because of his race regardless of what he may have convinced himself to believe. From Affirmative Action policies that enabled him to attend both Holy Cross and Yale, to the appointments as head of the EEOC to finally the Supreme Court. As head of the EEOC he wasn’t a lawyer especially keen on enforcing civil rights as his history of being a Reagonite would testify. And yet having a black face to run the office in a less than favorable fashion towards civil rights served dual purposes as the underlying message would be that a black man was head of the division regardless of its inactivity. Certainly he must have known that when Justice Marshall retired and his name was called that the seat was going to be filled by an African American. Since a republican happened to be in the White House, of course a conservative would be appointed. But Bush Sr. could not afford to put another White male in the slot and expect that to go over well even with Black conservatives. I believe it would be safe to say that there will always be at the very least one person of color on The Supreme Court; Perhaps just one at a time, but always one. And yet I did not see Thomas shun this act of Affirmative Action thrust upon him when offered one of nine of the most powerful seats in a court of law. He was not insulted nor did he put the invitation in the basement. It was common knowledge that he wasn’t the best and brightest judge available with all due respect. Therefore, at best Judge Thomas is disingenuous. At worse he is in total denial or conveniently blind to the mirror that has been consistently held to his face. Perhaps his bootstraps have been tied a bit too tight.
Furthermore, Thomas himself used the so called race card during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings when he referred to the process as “high tech lynching.” This was a shrewd yet transparent attempt to gain sympathy by drawing on the call for the same equal justice that he seems to disdain other African Americans from having themselves. It’s especially insulting when African Americans draw upon their blackness at a time of public scrutiny and danger while all but shunning racial issues during their normal course of life. OJ Simpson did the same thing as he tried to re-activate his “ghetto pass” during his trial for double murder in 1995. Michael Jackson did it during his child molestation trial as he held close to Jessie Jackson and hired the Fruit of Islam for security. Kobe Bryant invoked the name of Martin Luther King during his rape trial. However, once their issues are resolved, they will never again make statements on the issue of race when others are persecuted for fear of alienation and tampering with the corporate dollar. To quote Thomas again, “That’s silly. Come on!”
Part of me feels for Clarence Thomas. As a human I see a level of pain in his eyes and I connect with that. Still none of that matters when it comes to the law and his tenured record in the courts. It doesn’t matter how hard his grandfather was when he raised him. We will judge him by his writings and the way he votes on the courts; for those decisions alone will be his impact on the ability of the legal system to provide equal justice within the constitution of the United States. He is a man that says he shuns preferential treatment because of his race and yet has continuously benefited from it. Thomas certainly turned out to be a man of accomplishment. I am sure that despite the preferential treatment he received because of his race interwoven with his politics, his grandfather would have been proud that his grandson turned out to be a Supreme Court judge. Unfortunately, Justice Thomas’ voting record shows that he has consistently ruled against the interest of poor and disadvantaged people. He has not represented the compassionately conservative judge he claims to be. Instead he rules and writes opinions as if he is his grandfather displaying his personal form of judicial discipline, while struggling to love himself and be fully comfortable in his own black skin. That’s too bad.
It’s a shame if he only does interviews with the likes of 60 Minutes and Rush Limbaugh who interviewed him on October 1, just one day after the CBS feature aired. Because I cannot think of any major Black radio personality who would not also interview Thomas were he not afraid of the more poignant question he would receive along with the accolades of praise. But at least with the exposure of the 60 Minutes piece as well as his other tours of White radio and television he will sell a lot of books. I’m an author and I want to sell books too. So I am not mad at him. But when I sell my books, I’ll prefer to retain the rights to my soul.
References and Quotes
CBS News Story
Tavis Smiley Article