Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lay off Clarence Thomas

As conservatives continue lambasting Sonia Sotomayor as an affirmative action case, many liberals will be tempted to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy for supporting the nomination of Clarence Thomas. Thomas will again have his name dragged through the mud as every possible charge is leveled at him. He will be maligned as an intellectual lightweight who is Scalia’s lackey, and an Uncle Tom whom Kanye West might say cares as much about black people as George W. Bush.


Both charges are unfair. While Thomas has indeed received affirmative action in his life, I have yet to hear any convincing proof that he lacks the intellect necessary to serve on the court. The only explanation offered for this charge is that Thomas doesn’t ask many questions.

In fact, there is evidence that contrary to being Scalia’s lackey, Thomas has substantially influenced his thinking in certain cases. Jan Crawford Greenburg, the legal correspondent for ABC News writes:

Consider a criminal case argued during Justice Thomas's first week. It concerned a thief's effort to get out of a Louisiana mental institution and the state's desire to keep him there. Eight justices voted to side with the thief. Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that although it "may make eminent sense as a policy matter" to let the criminal out of the mental institution, nothing in the Constitution required "the states to conform to the policy preferences of federal judges.”After he sent his dissenting opinion to the other justices, as is custom, Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Kennedy changed their votes. The case ended up 5-4.

So I’m still waiting on evidence that Thomas is any dumber than say Stephen Breyer or Anthony Kennedy. Perhaps after an exhaustive analysis of his opinions over the years, someone will find that his legal reasoning is not up to the standard we should expect of a Supreme Court justice.

The second charge might be even more unfair. The idea is that Thomas is a race traitor because he doesn’t support affirmative action or slave reparations. Particularly galling is the fact that white liberals have latched onto the idea that Thomas isn’t authentically “black”— whatever that means. The trouble is that Thomas knows better what it means to be poor and black than almost all of his elite critics, white and black. He grew up poor in Georgia and surely experienced plenty of racism coming up in the 1960s and 1970s.

The charges of being an Uncle Tom reveal a crude bigotry too. It’s the idea that all blacks must think alike at all times. And I think that’s ultimately harmful for our perception of black intelligence.

I disagree with him on affirmative action, but I am convinced he’s against it not out of malice for blacks, or because he wants to “pull the ladder up behind him,” but because he thinks it is does them more harm than good. That is debatable, but instead of calling him names, liberals should argue the merits of affirmative action.

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