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Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas Hardcover – April 24, 2007
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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From Publishers Weekly
The conservatism of the nation's second African-American Supreme Court justice has made him a pariah in the black community, an irony that centers this probing biography, expanded from the authors'Washington Post Magazine profile. Thomas's rise from disadvantaged circumstances to Yale Law School, a meteoric government career and appointment to Thurgood Marshall's Court seat, Merida and Fletcher note, seems an affirmative action success story. Yet Thomas has opposed affirmative action, prisoners' rights, abortion and other planks of the liberal agenda, leading to ubiquitous complaints—the authors cite black leaders, prison inmates, even Thomas's relatives—that he's forgotten his roots. Merida and Fletcher present a lucid, well-researched account of Thomas's controversial life and jurisprudence, including evidence supporting Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegations, and a nuanced discussion of the politics of black authenticity. They portray Thomas as a conflicted man: a committed conservative with an ethos of self-reliance, who took advantage of affirmative action only to have his achievements tarnished by his own insecurities and others' suspicions of incompetence or hypocrisy. The authors' attempts to link his convictions to his psyche—they make much of his alleged resentment of light-skinned black professional elites—don't always click, but Thomas still emerges as a fascinating and emblematic figure. (Mar. 20)
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Washington Post reporters Merida and Fletcher interviewed Supreme Court justice Thomas' family members, friends, colleagues, former clerks, fellow conservative justice Scalia, and even former President Bush, who named Thomas to the court--but not Thomas himself. This unauthorized biography looks at the complexities behind the second black Supreme Court justice, the conservative who replaced the iconic civil rights defender Thurgood Marshall. The authors dissect the contradictions in Thomas' background: the careful campaign that harkened back to boyhood poverty, when Thomas mostly grew up middle class; the transformation of a campus radical into a conservative and avowed opponent of affirmative action. Beyond recalling Thomas' background, the authors delve into how Thomas was formed by the tumultuous period of desegregation and emerging radical black consciousness. Thomas' wounds are deep, evidenced in a box of rejection letters from law firms he continues to keep. Reviled by the black community and virtually an outsider in his own family, Thomas maintains an animated persona among black conservatives but is known for his silence and disengagement on the bench. The authors explore the dynamics behind the nomination of Thomas and the dramatic hearing that drew national attention as senators squirmed while parsing charges of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. Thomas' "high-tech lynching" remark, which turned the hearing, was scripted for a man who'd chosen to distance himself from racial identification. This is a thoroughly absorbing look at a conflicted man whose views will impact American law and race relations for generations. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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With the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings underway as I write this and many conservative lawmakers accusing her of being too Latina, it's a propitious time to revisit the confirmation of the last justice to be nominated because of his race. The authors, two black reporters with no racial agenda of their own, make it clear that Anita Hill's allegations were most likely accurate if somewhat overblown. The damage to Thomas's reputation by having his most private behavior exposed to the nation is a scarlet letter that Thomas will never live down -- people either love him or hate him, and for most of his fellow African-Americans it is the latter.
True to his enigmatic persona Thomas refused to be interviewed for this book, so the authors constructed their portrait from talking to everyone from his family members and schoolyard friends to his fellow Supreme Court justices. The picture that emerges is no less baffling than his public image.
Thomas's judicial philosophy is one of "originalism," believing the Constitution should be taken at face value and used to decide all issues before the court... the equivalent of biblical literalism, which the authors make clear Thomas also believes. This is ironic because the Constitution both allows slavery and forbids women's suffrage, two issues that even Thomas probably admits (privately) are valuable changes. One wonders if he'd be satisfied with 3/5ths of a vote on the bench, as the Constitution defines Negroes as 3/5 of a white man. Thomas comes down squarely on the side of power and wealth in every dispute between rich and poor, yet he himself was bullied as a youth as the only poor black student in a privileged white Catholic school. He is pro-death penalty but anti-abortion, pro-states rights but against slavery, pro-rule of law but voted to give George W. Bush unconstitutional war powers.
In short, Thomas's career on the court is nearly two decades of puzzling kowtowing to wealth and power which puts him in the minority on most decisions, relegating his dissents to historical footnotes rather than legal precedent. His willingness to turn a blind eye to injustice is one reason for the growing "Impeach Clarence Thomas" movement and ample evidence that his machine-like literalism is at odds with the very definition of "judging."
He is also in serious jeopardy from financial conflicts-of-interest, as his wife Ginni has worked for years for the Heritage Foundation and helped raise funds for many of the litigants who come before her husband. He refuses to recuse himself when tradition -- and fairness -- demand it.
The authors delve deep into Thomas's life looking for explanation, but find only troubling hints: his membership in a charismatic evangelical church, his officiating at Rush Limbaugh's (third) wedding, his fear of snakes, his fanatical devotion to his 62" flat screen TV. Apparently Thomas loves nothing better than to take his forty-foot RV around the country, "camping" in various Wal-Mart parking lots. The portrait that emerges is of a man way, way out of his depth on the court, with a $200,000 per year appointment for life.
About the first 1/3 of the book, the focus seemed to be on what African-Americans who knew Thomas at various stages of his life think or thought of him. This is quite a unique perspective, both authors being black, because it has not been so much the focus in other books on Thomas I have looked at. Then later the focus seemed to be what anybody and everybody thought of Thomas, from his fellow Justices to people he meets as he drives his motorcoach around the country on vacation. The problem with this approach are the views of all the folks whom the authors didn't interview. I found some chapters unimpressive ("Silent Justice" re his lack of questionning at oral argument) and others quite good ("Scalia's Clone?").
I think you do learn a good deal about Justice Thomas; I certainly feel a better grasp on his character and attitudes especially after having read the book. But there is only so far you can go with this approach. In any regard, the Justice's autobiography is due out shortly. I am sure this will lead to another round of Thomas examination and debate. He certainly is an interesting figure. On that there is no debate.