Thirty-one years after his Supreme Court confirmation, Judge Clarence Thomas has his moment.
It’s been a while. For most of those three decades, the ultra-conservative lawyer sat in the shadows, on the sidelines, largely silent. He wrote few opinions and said less. In photos, he always looked unhappy and uncomfortable, as if he was well aware of what critics thought of him, especially the many black people who saw him as an utterly unworthy replacement for the first black justice, civil rights hero Thurgood Marshall.
Of course, it was President George HW Bush’s cynical racial calculation that brought Thomas to justice — in an effort to appeal to harder-edged conservatives while appearing progressive — but it’s Thomas who has long suffered the brunt of our disdain. .
He deserved it. Inconspicuous as he has been, Thomas has nevertheless carried water for the far right, which has been exponentially emboldened by the Trump presidency and the GOP’s rapid transformation into a fact-denying cult of little use for sound reasoning, legal or otherwise.
But Thomas has always benefited from it.
Now he finally draws attention. Its unanimous opinion on the court’s decision to rule Roe vs. Overthrowing Wade not only agrees, it urges the right wing to more fascism, more undoing of rights not explicitly mentioned in the 14e Amendment, rights that Thomas believes are not protected by a “substantive fair trial”. Unlike his fellow conservative lawyers, Thomas takes a certain delight in kicking cans, a triumphalism that feels downright Trumpian.
But the most annoying thing is that Thomas’ fame is made possible by another black man: President Obama.
That may sound unlikely. In the public sphere, Obama and Thomas barely exist in the same conversations. They are political contradictions: Obama, the liberal, is the heir to the civil rights movement that reached its peak in the 1960s—the so-called Joshua generation—while the elder Thomas joined a small cadre of black conservatives who formed the nation in the 1990s. darlings of the white right. (It must be said that Thomas is more extreme than most of those conservatives, and as a Supreme Court justice with a job for life, he has the most power.)
Yet these two very different black men have a leading role in the sordid narrative of the right’s attempt to take over American politics by any means necessary.
Let’s look at it again: Obama’s election in 2008 was a jump start for a reactionary movement that found in the first black president a justification for a kind of overt racism that had long lived on the fringes. Obama largely hated the tea party, which in turn sparked an intense new hatred of the federal government that Obama led as president.
This hyper resentment on the right virtually broke Congress, because partnering with even moderate Democrats meant partnering with an illegitimate black leader. Bipartisan legislation and the goal of serving a single American audience became not things to strive for, but things to fight against. This no-prisoner stance tainted electoral politics and other public institutions, including the Supreme Court. And here we are.
It’s worth noting that opposition to Obama’s ascension has been accompanied by an increase in white violence, represented by gun and bullet sales that exploded in 2008. Those sales have never waned. Ryan Busse, the former gun manufacturers director who wrote an industry briefing last year, called Obama’s election the gift to gun lawyers that has continued to be given. The right’s slavish defense of gun rights, even amid mass shootings, led to the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning New York’s 100-year-old hidden-carry law. Call it Thomas’ warm-up act.
The contrast between Obama and Thomas is so much greater than the usual policy differences between liberal and conservative. As president, Obama repeatedly called for a more perfect union; Thomas thinks the nation was perfect at its founding, despite the fact that the constitution he venerates accommodated slavery and the dispossession of indigenous peoples and excluded women and non-landowners.
It’s one thing to be a black conservative who praises self-reliance and thinks the evidence for systematic racism is overblown — that’s to embrace a certain ahistoricism embedded in wider American culture. Sad, but understandable. But to be a black “original” Supreme Court judge who believes he must abide by a document designed to exclude and dehumanize people like him is just surreal.
That’s not about conservatism, it’s about defying reality because you can. It’s about giving in to the worst American arrogance, the kind of black people who are almost never in a position to exercise, not that we want to. Thomas takes the opportunity.
All of us in this country will suffer the consequences of the Trump court’s arrogance – indeed, we have suffered for a while. Thomas’s authoritarianism, fully unleashed in the Roe reversal, is just one more scandalous moment in a stream of scandalous, unsavory moments that is the modern tale of the right.
The cold consolation is that Thomas clearly belongs to that story, not to the story of black struggle and progress that is so central to the full realization of a democratic America.
In all the chaos and uncertainty, that remains something to celebrate. Happy Fourth of July.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer for Opinion.