Although Clarence Thomas is still only 65 — i.e., practically a youngster by the late Politburo-style demographics of the contemporary Supreme Court — he seems to be moving into the Abe Simpson period of what is likely to be (check out these SSA demographic tables) a 40-plus year tenure on the SCOTUS.
Yesterday he regaled an audience at a college in Florida with these sociological observations:
“My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,” Thomas said during a chapel service hosted by the nondenominational Christian university. “Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.
“That’s a part of the deal,” he added.
Apparently it wasn’t until Thomas left his old Savannah home that he encountered real racism, at the hands of Northern liberal elites:
“The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated,” Thomas said. “The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”
This is just sad. As Jon Chait points out:
Maybe the reason race came up so rarely was not that the racial situation was better in 1960s Georgia. Maybe the reason race came up rarely is that the racial situation in 1960s Georgia was extremely terrible.
For instance, for the first 14 years of Thomas’s life, Georgia had zero African-Americans in its state legislature. Majority-black Terrell had a total of five registered black voters — possibly because African-Americans were so satisfied with their treatment that they didn’t see any reason to vote, or possibly because civil-rights activists in Georgia tended to get assassinated.
I wish I could say it’s incomprehensible to me that an African American man who grew up in deep south in the 1950s and 1960s (Thomas was 16 when the Civil Rights Act was enacted) could talk about racism in this country as if it were primarily a matter of “slights” and “hurt feelings.” But unfortunately it’s all too comprehensible, in a world in which old men become parodies of the young men they once were, and in which we are taught from the earliest age to lick the hand that feeds us.
Note too the bottomless anti-intellectualism of this sort of social analysis by autobiographical anecdote. Let’s assume that Thomas actually did encounter more racism at Yale Law School, at the EEOC, before the Senate Judiciary Committee etc., than he did in Jim Crow Georgia. What relevance would this purported fact have to a discussion of the changing role of race in American life? Clarence Thomas has reached a point where he is making Ronald Reagan sound like Malcolm X. This sounds like hyperbole, but compare:
When I was your age, believe it or not, none of us knew that we even had a racial problem. When I graduated from college and became a radio sport announcer, broadcasting major league baseball, I didn’t have a Hank Aaron or a Willie Mays to talk about. The Spaulding Guide said baseball was a game for Caucasian gentlemen. Some of us then began editorializing and campaigning against this. Gradually we campaigned against all those other areas where the constitutional rights of a large segment of our citizenry were being denied. We have not finished the job. We still have a long way to go, but we have made more progress in a few years than we have made in more than a century.
Ronald Reagan, speech to the first Conservative Political Action Conference, January 25, 1974.