RWN’s Favorite Quotes From Clarence Thomas’ My Grandfather’s Son

by John Hawkins | October 12, 2007 7:30 am

Growing Up / Thomas’ Grandfather

Daddy made it plain though, that there was a connection between what he provided for us and what he required of us. He told us that if we learned how to work, we would be able to live as well as he and Aunt Tina did when we grew up. That, he said, would be our inheritance. For him all honest work was good work, and he proudly wore a T-shirt and khaki work pants (or, during cooler weather, a khaki shirt or sweatshirt) every day, but he expected us to do better. Our first task was to get a good education, so that we could hold down a “coat-and-tie-job,” and he wouldn’t listen to any excuses for failure. “Old Man Can’t is dead — I helped bury him,” he said time and again. It wasn’t easy for us to accept his unbending rules, but we did it anyway; he gave us no choice. The door to his house, he said, swung both ways. It had swung inward on our arrival, but if we didn’t behave, he warned ominously, it would swing outward. He added that he would never tell us to do as he said, but to do as he did — and he kept his word.” — P.13

(Daddy) warned us that if we died, he’d take our bodies to school for three days to make sure we weren’t faking, and we figured he meant it. He also told us that our teachers, like Aunt Tina, were always right. Even if they weren’t, it did no good to complain to him. Doing so was sure to get us in worse trouble. — P.15

In his presence, there was no play, no fun, and little laughter. ‘No time for that kind of foolishness,” he would say. Genesis 3:17-19 was his credo: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken.’ Because of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden, Daddy said, it was our lot in life to work ‘from sun to sun.’ Once, years later, I got up the nerve to tell him that slavery was over. ‘Not in my house,’ he replied. — P.26

He was more concerned about the expense of sending me to Saint John, which charged about $400 a year, four times as much tuition as St. Pius X. For him that was serious money. Yet he agreed, laying down one condition: “If you go, you have to stay. You can’t quit.” I promised I wouldn’t. He gave me his blessing, then added, “Don’t shame me — and don’t shame our race.” — P.31

I wasn’t used to that kind of pressure, and I started to worry about flunking out. Such fears were part of the price that my generation of blacks paid for moving out from behind the wall of segregation. We had always believed that we could do as well as whites if we were only given a fair shake — but what if it turned out that we weren’t good enough after all? What would that do to our long-deferred dream of equality? — P.33

Daddy and I never seemed to stop fighting. I complained bitterly about the oppression of blacks and told him that a revolution was coming. He assured me in return that America was the best country in the world, but I stood my ground and argued right back at him, and my newfound insolence made him furious. “I don’t know why I worked so hard to help you boy,” he said more than once. “I never thought you’d go to some d*mn school way up north and have all this foolishness put in your head. — P.52

I began to suspect that Daddy had been right all along: the only hope of changing the world was to change myself first. I thought of the many times that I had delivered fresh-picked farm produce to one of our elderly relatives. On such occasions he never failed to remind me that if we hadn’t worked so hard to grow it, we wouldn’t be able to give it to those who needed help. For the past few years, I’d been sneering at the simplemindedness of his philosophy of self-reliance, but now it was making sense to me again. If I was truly serious about helping other people, I’d have to start by helping myself… — P.60

I thought of what Daddy had said when I asked him why he’d never gone on public assistance. “Because they take away your manhood,” he said. — P.73

As much as it stung to be told that I’d done well in the seminary despite my race, it was far worse to feel that I was now at Yale because of it. — P.75

I remembered, too, how (Daddy) liked to rattle the loose change in his pocket and tell us that the same coins had been his pocket at the beginning of the week, and would still be there at the end. — P.77

Philosophy, Race, & Views

Merely because I was black, it seemed, I was supposed to listen to Hugh Masekela instead of Carole King, just as I was expected to be a radical, not a conservative. I no longer cared to play that game. Some of my friends accused me of being contrary for its own sake, but I knew there was more to my growing skepticism than mere stubbornness. The black people I knew came from different places and backgrounds — social, economic, even ethnic — yet the color of our skin was somehow supposed to make us identical in spite of our differences. I didn’t buy it. Of course we had all experienced racism in one way or another, but did that mean we had to think alike? — P.62

I was bitter towards the white bigots whom I held responsible for the unjust treatment of blacks, but even more bitter towards the ostensibly unprejudiced whites who pretended to side with black people while using them to further their own political and social ends, turning against them when it suited their purposes. At least southerners were up front about their bigotry: you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so the paternalistic big city whites who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place. — P.75

It was in Boston, not Georgia, that a white man had called me n*gger for the first time. I’d already found New England to be far less honest about race than the South, and I bristled at the self-righteous sanctimony with which so many of the northerners at Yale glibly discussed the South’s racial problems. — P.78

It was disconcerting to watch other people using food stamps to buy whatever they pleased, but I knew our financial problems would someday come to an end, whereas theirs were likely to stay with them. — P.85

I’d been spending so much time thinking obsessively about race that I’d lost sight of the rest of what the world had to offer. My new friends knew better. They understood what mattered: family, home, church, friends. — P.99

I’d already noticed that it was liberals, not conservatives, who were more likely to condescend to blacks, but I assumed, like the good radical I once was, that liberals and conservatives were simply two different breeds of snake, one stealthy, the other openly hostile. Yet, here was a black man who talked hard common sense about race — the same sense I was groping towards — and was being praised for it in America’s most staunchly Republican newspaper. All at once the political spectrum looked more complicated than I had previously suspected. — P.108

“Black is a state of mind,” one Democratic staffer told me, by which I assumed he meant being a liberal Democrat. That kind of all-us-black-folks-think-alike nonsense wasn’t part of my upbringing, and I saw it as nothing more than a way to herd blacks into a political camp. — P.125

I saw no good coming from an ever larger government that meddled, with incompetence if not mendacity, in the lives of its citizens, and I was particularly distressed by the Democratic Party’s ceaseless promises to legislate the problems of blacks out of existence. Their misguided efforts had already done great harm to my people, and I felt sure that anything else they did would compound the damage. — P.130

(T)he attrition rate for blacks in predominantly white colleges and universities throughout America was disturbingly high. Although half failed to graduate on time, if at all. Nor was enough attention being paid to the kinds of courses these students were taking: very few studied math, science, or engineering. To ignore these unpalatable facts was to miss the whole point of a higher education. Merely to enroll a black in a predominantly white college means nothing. What matters most is what happens next. An education is meaningless unless it equips students to have a better life. — P.142

One reporters told me that good news about civil rights wasn’t “newsworthy” during the Reagan years. As far as I was concerned, that said it all. — P.162

…(W)ord got back to me that I was being “taken to the woodshed” to be taught a lesson, and one of the participants in the meeting started by telling me certain things I had to do at EEOC. I stopped him cold, “As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “there are only two things I have to do: stay black and die.” If I failed at EEOC, I added, it would be because of my own decisions, not because I was carrying water for some White House staffer. — P.178

…I’d come to realize, as a I told a reporter, that “conservatives don’t exactly break their necks to tell blacks that they’re welcome.” Was it because they were prejudiced? Perhaps some of them were, but the real reason, I suspected, was that blacks didn’t vote for Republicans, nor would Democrats work with President Reagan on Civil-Rights issues. As a result there was little interest within the administration in helping a constituency that wouldn’t do anything in return to help the President. My suspicions were confirmed when I offered my assistance to President Reagan’s reelection campaign, only to be met with near total indifference. One political consultant was honest enough to tell me straight out that since the president’s reelection strategy didn’t include the black vote, there was no role for me. — P.179

Back in 1984, I’d told Juan Williams exactly how I felt about the refusal of civil-rights leaders to treat President Reagan other than contemptuously. All they did, I said, was “b*tch, b*tch, b*tch, moan and moan, whine and whine. That doesn’t help anything…You don’t call the judge reviewing your case a jack*ss; you don’t call the banker reviewing your loan application a fool. But that’s exactly what black leaders have done with this administration. They’ve called the President everything but a child of God.” — P.183

“…I was struck by how easy it had become for sanctimonious whites to accuse a black man of not caring about civil rights. It was as ludicrous as a well-fed man lecturing a starving person about his insensitivity to world hunger” — P.202

He told me that as I considered each case that came before me, I should ask myself, “What is my role in this case — as a judge?” It was the best piece of advice I received, one that became central to my approach to judging. In the legislative and executive branch, it’s acceptable (if not necessarily right) to make decisions based on your personal opinion or interests. The role of a judge, by contrast, is to interpret and apply the choices made in those branches, not to make policy choices of his own. — P.204

Anita Hill / Confirmation Hearings

Anita had graduated from Yale Law School the year before, so I started off by asking her why she wanted to leave a prestigious law firm to come to an obscure civil-rights agency. She replied that her options were limited because she couldn’t get a recommendation from a partner for whom she worked. According to her, the partner had asked her out, and when she declined, he’d started giving her bad work assignments and performance assessments. — P.140

At one point (Howard Metzenbaum) actually tried to lure me into a discussion of national law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of, say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. — P.222

Al Gore was equally candid when a friend of mine approached him, saying that he’d vote for me if he decided not to run for President. — P.222

I also met with several board members of the NAACP, but that was a waste of time, since the organization announced its opposition to my nomination shortly after the meeting, apparently at the insistence of the AFL-CIO. Friends of mine who were close to both organizations gave me a copy of the union’s letter to the NAACP. They explained to me that the AFL-CIO’s leaders wanted the NAACP to give them cover to oppose me at the union’s upcoming convention….What saddened me was the fact that an organization whose independence had once been a byword in the Deep South had been reduced to doing the bidding of the AFL-CIO. — P.228

Dave Kyllo, another former EEOC staffer, had asked her if Anita Hill would say anything negative about me. Diane knew that question would strike me as ridiculous, and it gave both of us a chuckle. I’d actually penciled her in as a liberal whom I could call as a witness on my behalf should it become necessary. — P.230

As bad as I felt, though, my mother felt even worse. Between the day President Bush announced his intention of nominating me to the end of my testimony, she lost more than thirty pounds as a result of stress and worry. — P.239

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Carlton Stewart, a childhood friend who’d worked with Anita at the EEOC, had told me he’d run into her at the ABA convention in August and that she’d been delighted by the news of my nomination. — P.243

“Judge, I know you don’t believe me,” (Joe Biden) replied, “but if any of these last two matters come up, I will be your biggest defender.” (The other matter to which he was referring was the leak of my draft opinion.)

He was right about one thing: I didn’t believe him. Neither did Virginia. As he reassured me of his goodwill, she grabbed a spoon from the silverware drawer, opened her mouth wide, stuck out her tongue as far as she could, and pretended to gag herself. — P.249

…I met for the first time an Anita Hill who bore little resemblance to the woman who had worked for me at EEOC and the Education Department. Somewhere along the line she had been transformed into a conservative, devoutly religious Reagan-administration employee. In fact she was a left-winger who’d never expressed any religious sentiments whatsoever in the time I’d known her, and the only reason why she’d held a job in the Reagan administration was because I’d given it to her. — P.250

I’d graduated from one of America’s top law schools — but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value. I’d been nominated to sit on the Supreme Court — but my refusal to swallow the liberal pieties that had done so much damage to blacks in America meant that I had to be destroyed. — P.252

Marlin Fitzwater was among the White House staffers who talked of pulling the plug on my nomination, but Boyden Gray — as well as the President himself — refused to panic. — P.256

“(Anita Hill) has claimed at her press conference to have been too afraid of me to complain about my alleged misconduct — yet she’d lobbied aggressively to follow me from the Department of Education to EEOC. She said she’d never called me — but the telephone logs of my secretaries at EEOC and the court of appeals proved that she’d done so repeatedly. She claimed that other members of my staff could corroborate her story — but they denied it. In the end only three EEOC employees would support her version of what supposedly happened between us — but all of them had either been fired or left the agency on bad terms, and none, to my knowledge, had worked there at the same time as Anita. Having spent years at the EEOC reviewing such claims, I was sure that this one would have been thrown out of court in an instant. But did any of these things matter? Not in the least. The mob was howling and it wouldn’t be satisfied until it had tasted my blood. — P.257

The mob I now faced carried no ropes or guns. Its weapons were smooth-tongued lies spoken into microphones and printed on the front pages of America’s newspapers. It no longer sought to break the bodies of its victims. Instead it devastated their reputations and drained away their hope. But it was a mob all the same, and its purpose — to keep the black man in his place — was unchanged. Strip away the fancy talk and you were left with the same old story. You can’t trust black men around women. This one may be a big-city judge with a law degree from Yale, but when you get right down to it, he’s just like the rest of them. They all do that sort of thing whenever they get the chance and no woman would ever lie about it. What does it matter that Anita Hill’s story doesn’t add up? Something must have happened. Case closed. — P.269-270

Howell Heflin, whose uncle had once graced the Senate as an apologist for the Ku Klux Klan, had evidently been chosen as the point man for his fellow Democrats, and he began by asking me whether I had watched Anita Hill’s testimony.

“No, I didn’t,” I snapped. “I’ve heard enough lies.” — P.271

I heard the phone ring as I soaked my tired body. Virgina answered. It was Dana Barbieri, her assistant. They spoke for a moment, then she hung up and came into the bathroom. “Dana just called to congratulate you,” she said. “You were confirmed. Fifty two to forty-eight.”

“Whomp-dee-d*mn-doo,” I said, sliding deeper into the comforting water. I thought of what Ray Donavan, President Reagan’s much-maligned Secretary of Labor, had said after being acquitted of corruption charges: “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” — P.280

Source URL: