Clarence Thomas: Blind To The Chip On His Shoulder?

Clarence Thomas, in his new book titled My Grandfather’s Son, draws perhaps one of the most inane conclusions I’ve heard in a long time. Thomas contends that affirmative action rendered his Yale law degree virtually worthless…leading him to literally and figuratively attach a paltry value of fifteen cents to it.

Perhaps I’m treading on fragile ground, but Thomas’ conclusion suggests to me that his view of reality may actually emanate from persistent resentments and a series of misguided attributions.

The conservative justice says he initially considered his admission to Yale a dream, but soon felt he was there because of his race. He says he loaded up on tough courses to prove he was not inferior to his white classmates but considers the effort futile. He says he was repeatedly turned down in job interviews at law firms after his 1974 graduation.

“I learned the hard way that a law degree from Yale meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks, no matter how much any one denied it,” Thomas writes. “I’d graduated from one of America’s top law schools, but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value.”

Thomas says he stores his Yale Law degree in his basement with a 15-cent sticker from a cigar package on the frame.

Excuse me, but isn’t is possible that what Mr. Thomas exuded, and employers perceived, in his post-Yale interviews was the same surly “chip on his shoulder” persona that many point to this very day? The fact that a man burdened by such insecurity and conflicted by so many inferred grievances sits on the highest court in the land and likely filters each case through this skewed template is a frightening thought. The fact that many of the current GOP presidential candidates point to Thomas as a model for future judicial appointments is unconscionable.

Let me be clear. No doubt Thomas is a man of extraordinary intellect and possesses the credentials to warrant his position. Notwithstanding, anyone who has been in a position to hire employees realizes that a stellar resume can be negated by an incongruous attitude. In fact, this very circumstance is often rife with the potential for distorted perceptions to overwhelm an otherwise erudite individual.

Anecdotally, one could also argue that Thomas’ difficulty in securing a position following his graduation may have resulted from residual racism that certainly existed in 1974, the year of his graduation. The fact that affirmative action may have facilitated his education and provided the grounds to reject him as an employee (his view) needn’t nullify the significance of the opportunity it afforded and the eventual benefit it provided.

If Mr. Thomas believes his inclusion at Yale was a function of an ill-advised quota system, do his eventual achievements not suggest that affirmative action actually succeeded in opening doors that may have otherwise been closed to those who should have been welcomed based upon merit? Had Mr. Thomas been excluded from Yale and subsequently written a book which argued that racism played a part in denying access to education for individuals of merit, he could easily be a champion for the very program he seeks to skewer…and his seat on the Supreme Court would provide the very same justifications for that argument.

Frankly, Thomas’ difficulties finding work are not foreign to millions of qualified Americans…black, white, brown, Italian, Catholic, or gay to name a few. Fortunately, the vast majority of them don’t focus upon harboring animosities…animosities which tint or taint the views they hold for the remainder of their lives. Some of his fellow Yale students support that very argument.

His view isn’t shared by black classmate William Coleman III.

“I can only say my degree from Yale Law School has been a great boon,” said Coleman, now an attorney in Philadelphia. “Had he not gone to a school like Yale, he would not be sitting on the Supreme Court.”

Edgar Taplin Jr., raised by a single parent in New Orleans, said he landed a job after graduation at the oldest law firm in New York, and does not recall black graduates struggling more to get jobs than their white classmates.

“My degree was worth a lot more than 15 cents,” said Taplin, who retired in 2003 as a global manager with Exxon Mobil.

William Coleman says it’s time for Thomas to move on.

“You did OK, guy,” he said.

In fairness to Thomas, I’m certain he encountered unwarranted obstacles and that is supported by some former classmates and teachers at Yale. His book is noteworthy for the sincere homage he pays to his grandfather. Had it not included the portions that suggest he remains an unresolved and vengeful individual, one could actually view his life as a tale of remarkable resiliency. Unfortunately, my impression is that Thomas is appreciative of the former but driven by the latter.

Thomas has declined to have his portrait hung at Yale Law School along with other graduates who became U.S. Supreme Court justices. An earlier book, “Supreme Discomfort,” by Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, portrays Thomas as still upset some Yale professors opposed his confirmation during hearings marked by Anita Hill’s allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her.

If Clarence Thomas’ experience represents the worst of affirmative action…and it seems he believes as much…then it seems to me that the benefits have far outweighed the costs. Lest we forget, for every Clarence Thomas there was no doubt ten others who faced the discrimination and the inequity of opportunity that affirmative action sought to correct. Mr. Thomas, through his words and actions, continues to ignore the relevance of that actuality.

Mr. Thomas, if your charmed life is so insufficient as to warrant the angry recitations you felt compelled to include in your biographical account and you seem to exhibit in the positions you take as a Supreme Court Justice, then may I suggest you’re little more than the bastion of bitterness many have come to believe you to be?

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

One Response to “Clarence Thomas: Blind To The Chip On His Shoulder?”

  1. steve Says:

    Interesting take… I remember before auditioning for the college I wanted to go to for a Music degree, I was scrambling to figure out a way to pay for it since tuition was $16k a year at the time. I looked at a list of scholarships I could apply for and only one sounded remotely possible. It was for hispanic/asian kids of parents who immigrated to America. The only qualification was that your parents had to be born in another country and you had to be born here. I asked if I could apply for it and I remember the financial aid person laughing at me. When I explained that my father came here from Germany, I should qualify. Of course, I did not get to apply for scholarship and I later didn’t need it. But it is a interesting thing about immigration and Affirmative Action. We don’t necessarily treat people as equals when we have to fulfill quotas. Abandoning that law is the best thing this country can do after living with it first.

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