Paul Russell looks at the reluctant leadership of Clarence Thomas.
A self-professed oddity. A man who has been called a ‘pimp’ and a ‘traitor’ to his race. A Supreme Court Justice who asked not a single question during 10 years on the Supreme Court bench. And a man who is said to have never sought fame, nor to be a black leader.
Clarence Thomas succeeded Thurgood Marshall to become the second US African American justice in 1991. In that time, controversy has abounded, not least of which relates to Thomas’s disinclination to conform to ideals imposed on him by others.
Famously quiet and contemplative in court, political strategist Donna Brazile said that Thomas: “…is not looking to be a black leader. I’m sure he never applied.” Whilst the Washington Post say that watching Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas is like ‘watching the milkman’ based upon his lack of standoffishness, pomposity and pretension.
Justice Thomas’s views about race and individuality have drawn great criticism. Thomas has said that: “I am of the view that black Americans will move inexorably and naturally toward conservatism when we stop discouraging them; when they are treated as a diverse group with differing interests.”
Manners will open doors that the best education cannot.
Further, that: “Merely because I was black, I was supposed to listen to Hugh Maskela instead of Carole King, just as I was expected to be a radical instead of a conservative. I no longer cared to play that game.” It was during the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s conference in 1995 that Thomas was called a ‘pimp’ and a ‘traitor’ to his race.
The strong views held by Thomas were undoubtedly developed during his childhood. Born into poverty in 1948 in rural Georgia, Thomas and his brother went to live with his maternal grandfather in Savannah at seven years of age.
Speaking of his upbringing, Thomas said: “I grew up under state-enforced segregation which is as close to totalitarianism as I would like to get.” His grandfather became his father and instilled strong values.
Recalled by Thomas: “My household…was strong, stable and conservative. God was central. School, discipline, hard work and knowing right from wrong were of the highest priority…they marked the path of survival and the escape route from squalor.”
Thomas’s path took him from being the first black student at St. John Vianney Minor Seminary to becoming a founder of the Black Students’ Union at the Holy Cross to Yale Law School. Thomas later, famously, attached a 15c sticker to his Yale Law Diploma hinting at his innate belief that it is values not education that determine worth.
Indeed, one of Thomas’s most famous quotes is that: “Manners will open doors that the best education cannot.” His faith in the power of upbringing was evident in a speech of 1987 when he said: “Those who attempt to capture the daily counselling, oversight, common sense and vision of my grandparents in a governmental program are engaging in sheer folly.”
A well-documented senate hearing for alleged sexual harassment of Thomas’s former aide Anita Hill preceded Thomas’s accession to the Supreme Court in 1991, a time that Thomas discusses in his book My Grandfather’s Son published in 2007. As regards media interview though, Thomas remains remote, with a November 2017 interview with former clerk Laura Ingraham making the news for its rarity.
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Thomas is also well known for his quietness in the courtroom and his reluctance to ask questions, he has said: “There’s no reason to add to the volume…I just think that it’s more in my nature to listen rather than ask a bunch of questions. And they get asked anyway. The only reason I could see for asking the questions is to let people know I’ve got something to ask.”
Thomas’ recent interview with Ingraham may provide further insight. Asked about how his workplace differed since the passing of fellow Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, Thomas said Scalia had a way of filling up the room with his personality.
Or in other words, perhaps, that the questions were already being asked.
Yet Thomas has also referred to his childhood, talking of growing up speaking Gullah, being teased for his accent at school and feeling intimidated by other students.
He has said of communicating with his grandparents: “I must add that my grandparents enforced a no-debate rule. There were a number of concerns that I wanted to express. In fact, I did on a number of occasions at a great price. But then, I have always found a way to get in my two cents.”
Thomas has also been encouraging of others speaking out saying: “To the extent that you are reluctant to ask questions, I would just encourage you to overcome that. There are no bad questions if you want an answer.” When Justice Thomas asked a question from the Supreme Court bench in 2016, breaking a ten-year silence, it made the NY Times.
We have exacting standards by which we measure our leaders, and Clarence Thomas has not, by his own admission, wished to conform to them. We’ve seen this in his reluctance to act as we expect a Supreme Judge to do, his reluctance to say what we expect a Supreme Judge to say, and his reluctance to feel what we expect a Supreme Judge to feel.
Thomas eloquently asserts: “Perhaps some are confused because they have stereotypes of how blacks should be, and I respectfully decline, as I did in my youth, to sacrifice who I am for who they think I should be.”
What we can learn from Clarence Thomas is that with leadership comes responsibility, and also expectation but it is down to us to determine whether those expectations are within the realms of our own conscience, standards and values. In the words of Ilya Shapiro: “Though he did not seek fame, he accepted it when it found him, but it has always been in his own terms.”