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Thomas’s Confirmation: The True Story

Nonetheless, the game was being pursued at higher risk than anyone but Thomas knew. He realized, for instance, that his picture of the work-immersed life in law school could be challenged if anyone looked carefully. Senator Danforth, the nominee’s sponsor and former employer, writes in Resurrection that Thomas later admitted that “he had watched pornographic movies while a law student.” This hardly fits the picture of a man too busy with his new family and work to spare even ten minutes to discuss the law. He could spare hours (away from his shy, Catholic-educated wife) to watch pornographic movies.

Danforth, in his book on Thomas, says that the judge showed signs of extraordinary, almost pathological, distress even before Hill made her charges, or Thomas knew of them.

Beginning shortly after his nomination on July 1, Clarence Thomas had the strong feeling that someone was trying to kill him…. He recalls peering through his window at the decks of surrounding houses to see if there was anyone there who was trying to kill him…. In Clarence’s description of his own state, physical death and destruction of his reputation are not clearly differentiated. He recounts his fear from early July [two months before Anita Hill was heard from at all] in these words: “These people are going to try to kill me. I hadn’t done anything to them, but they are going to try to kill me. And so I was always waiting to be killed. I mean literally waiting to be destroyed in some way.”

What can explain such distress? Thomas says he was not reading the early criticisms of him made by some civil rights figures. Besides, he had been in a controversial agency, where he seemed to field criticism well. It is true that the strategy worked out for him made him dismiss old friends like Thomas Sowell and risk appearing intellectually incurious (at best) about work he had praised, cited, or magically avoided. But there was a higher cleverness to this, which he might have exulted in if he felt perfectly comfortable with the one strong point he was instructed to return to on all possible occasions—his character, grounded in his family.

His appeal to family values had been popular with the conservative audiences he found frequent occasion to address. He told them hope for African Americans lay not in the state, not in preferential treatment, but in strong families like his own. He told a group of black conservatives in 1985: “When I grew up, there was more a feeling of responsibility for kids that you brought into the world…. The government didn’t have a damn thing to do about it.” But, as Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson show in Strange Justice, this idyllic picture hardly reflects his background. His father deserted his mother; his grandfather and great-grandfather had done the same thing. What is more, Thomas was alienated from every member of his family at one or other point, often for long periods. The grandfather, whose discipline he praised repeatedly before the committee, had beaten him, pressured him into a Catholic seminary, and idolized the civil rights leaders Thomas rebelled against. The grandfather’s best friend, Sam Williams, told Mayer and Abramson that the grandfather felt betrayed by Clarence, who had promised he would become a civil rights lawyer and ended up attacking such lawyers.

The grandfather, an active member of the NAACP (he gave the organization free coal from his business), admired the Thurgood Marshall whom Clarence attacked. Yet Thomas was willing to use that grandfather on an earlier occasion than his confirmation hearings. Campaigning for Ronald Reagan in 1984, he said he convinced both his grandparents, who had voted Democratic in the past, to re-register and vote Republican in 1982, just before their deaths. Mayer and Abramson checked the voter registration rolls in question and found that Thomas’s grandmother had never registered to vote either Democratic or Republican, and that his grandfather was still a registered Democrat who voted in the Democratic primary in 1982. Using his dead grandfather was something Thomas was good at by the time he testified before the Senate. (Thomas’s defenders now say the grandfather might have re-registered as a Democrat but voted Republican. They are silent on the grandmother, about whom Thomas provably lied.)

There is no way the committee could have known about some of this, but it did have one important piece of evidence to demonstrate Thomas’s attitude toward his family. In 1980, he had told a Washington Post reporter that his sister destroyed her children’s sense of responsibility by accepting welfare: “Now her kids feel entitled to the check too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.” The committee members had the text of that interview. They may or may not have known that his sister was not on welfare when Thomas said she was—she had found work by then, when her children did not take all her time. Thomas, the defender of family values, did not even know his sister’s situation while he was denouncing her. He would later claim he drove from Washington to Georgia nonstop in order to apologize to her; but when Mayer and Abramson asked her about this, the sister had no remembrance of this having happened.

Even if the comments had been true at the time, they were a verbal assault on a woman who clearly needed help at one stage of her difficult life, and they were an insult to her children, Thomas’s own nieces and nephews. No single comment of Thomas’s called forth more indignation from the black scholars whose criticisms of him are collected in Toni Morrison’s fascinating book. Most of them conclude that this comment shows such moral insensitivity as to disqualify him all by itself. It would have been a cruel enough thing to say of any woman in need; directed at his sister, it was inexcusable. Thomas accused her of destroying her own children’s moral drive—though she had been the one who had to stay home and care for their mother while Clarence received the preferential treatment given males. He went off to an education and other opportunities denied her. Manning Marable, of the University of Colorado, expresses the view of many in Morrison’s book:

As economist Julianne Malvaux critically observed: “For providing that kind of support in her family, Emma Mae Martin earned her brother’s public scorn. What can the rest of us women expect from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as issues of pay equity and family policy come before the court?”

Though Thomas’s sister came to his confirmation hearing, his only brother did not—and he has refused to comment on Clarence for the press. If your sister had been treated as Clarence treated Emma Mae, would you support him? Some argued at the hearing—Thomas himself was one of them—that Thomas, having suffered poverty as a child, would have to be compassionate to the poor. Yet he was not compassionate to his sister when she was poor, though she had shared his own earlier suffering.

The Mayer and Abramson book investigates thoroughly the family ties Thomas misreported. Though his brother would not come to his hearing, Thomas invited his long-estranged father, much to the distress of his mother, who had been deserted by him. (Thomas failed to visit his mother when going back to his childhood haunts.) In fact, after Thomas found his lost father, he seemed more at ease with him than with his mother. His attitude toward Leola, his mother, emerges from this incident, recounted by her:

“Mamma, what kind of woman do I like?…what color was Kathy [his first wife, part Japanese]?”
“She was brown.”
“And the others?”
“They’ve all been light-skinned, too.”
“Right. So what would I want with a woman as black as Anita Hill?”

He was telling his mother that he did not prize dark-skinned women—and that mother is a dark-skinned woman.

Some of the black scholars in Toni Morrison’s book are quick to pick up on Thomas’s avowed dislike for “black women.” Asked why he thought Anita Hill would attack him, he could come up with only one answer: he told Senator Specter that Hill, very black, was jealous of the light-skinned women he dated. Gayle Pemberton, who teaches in the Princeton Afro-American studies program, writes in Morrison’s book:

In response to Senator Specter’s hypothesis that the brown Anita Hill had a color-linked, ulterior and jealous motive, Thomas assented, saying: “There seemed to be some tension as a result of the lighter complexion of the women I dated and the woman I chose to be my chief executive, my preferring individuals of the lighter complexion.” That broke hearts across black America, because it proclaimed the stereotype to be true: Thomas, sitting next to his white wife, with those lines became, incarnate, the black man white America imagines.

Whites who knew Thomas found it impossible to believe he would talk as crudely as Hill claimed. And indeed he made extravagant claims for his own prim language. When Biden said that he (Biden) would tell jokes among men that he could not repeat around women, Thomas said that he would never do such a thing:

I attempted to conduct myself in a way with my staff so that there were no jokes that I would listen to or tell to men that I could not listen to or tell to women. There were no jokes that I found acceptable that I could not listen to or tell to any ethnic group.21

Mayer and Abramson had no difficulty finding people Thomas talked to in very graphic ways. These informants had one thing in common—they were all black. Thomas told the committee that he majored in English at Holy Cross “as a second language,” that he felt, even with his Latin-studying years in the seminary behind him, that he could not talk correctly, that he found it difficult to do so. He learned that second language for whites and for those he respected—for use with his white wife, or with an ordained minister like Senator Danforth, or with Gary Bauer and other members of the religious right he was cultivating in the 1980s. But he knew, when he described his finickiness, that there were people listening who could testify to his other side, to the side that “talked black.” Henry Terry, a friend from law school days, now an attorney in Boston, recognized Thomas in the language Hill described him as using, not in the puritanical attitude Thomas assumed with Biden. “That’s my boy,” he said when Hill quoted Thomas. “That’s him talking.”

Even Orlando Patterson, the black sociologist at Harvard, found Hill’s language more plausible than Thomas’s weird white-speak—though he excused Thomas for having to maintain his pose with the committee.22 The black scholars in Morrison’s book also find the two-language thesis plausible, though they do not (like Patterson) defend Thomas for denying under oath that he ever used black argot. Kimberlé Crenshaw writes:

  1. 21

    Thomas Hearings, Part 4, p. 222. 

  2. 22

    Orlando Patterson, “Race, Gender, and Liberal Fallacies,” The New York Times, October 20, 1991. 

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