ATLANTA — In researching my biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, I was continually struck by the ferocity of attacks against him by black intellectuals, academics, and politicians. Justice Thomas has been called a Judas, a traitor to his race, and a white man masquerading in black skin.
A common ingredient of the vitriol is that Thomas, descended from Georgia slaves, has sold out the interests of black Americans. Having benefited from programs such as affirmative action, Thomas has voted to eradicate them. Critics see a craven self-interest in Thomas's behavior on the Supreme Court: He got to the top but wants to keep everyone else off the hill.
The criticisms raise a good question: Does the court's lone black jurist have a responsibility to his race? The question is all the more timely because White House lawyers, as I learned in my reporting, have consulted Thomas about succeeding Chief Justice William Rehnquist should Mr. Rehnquist, who turned 80 on Oct. 1, step down. Based on my conversations with Thomas, I believe he would answer the race responsibility question strongly in the affirmative. But Thomas has chosen to fulfill that obligation in a way that differs dramatically from that of his predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, and many of his contemporaries who came of age during the civil rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s.
On the Supreme Court, Thomas is the strongest advocate of school vouchers because they allow black parents to send their children to parochial schools. Born to a teenage mother, Thomas credits the Catholic schools he attended with pulling him out of poverty and launching him to college.
Thomas is the harshest Supreme Court critic of policies and laws that he believes perpetuate racist stereotypes. He thinks affirmative action presumes that black Americans can't compete with whites unless their college admissions applications are adjusted. Thomas has voted against forcing schools to integrate because he sees an assumption that black kids can't learn unless they sit next to whites, or that any school that is all black must be all bad. Thomas reacts strongly to assumptions about black Americans because he's been battling negative presumptions all his life. Just out of Yale Law School in 1974, Thomas wanted a corporate law job. Large white law firms, however, weren't interested in a black associate to work with their rich, mostly white clients, and instead wanted to talk to him about opportunities in civil rights law.
Even the Republican Party kept many doors closed. Ronald Reagan plucked Thomas out of obscurity in 1981 and offered him civil rights jobs at the Education Department and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas had studied tax law and wanted assignments that matched his expertise. But the so-called black jobs were the only ones offered. Thomas took the assignments and, I suspect, has never regretted any decision more.
Many Americans think that Thomas simply does the bidding of his white colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, as if he were incapable of arriving at similar judicial conclusions himself. Now in his 14th year on the Supreme Court, Thomas challenges assumptions about who and what he should be. His message to all Americans is that you can be whatever you want if you ignore society's expectations and have the strength to follow your own.
• Ken Foskett, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is author of 'Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas.' © Baltimore Sun.