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The profound pessimism of Clarence Thomas

How “the sense of defeat over the Black freedom struggle” shaped the Supreme Court justice’s thinking.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas sits during a group photo of the justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on April 23, 2021.
Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

What does Clarence Thomas really believe?

Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991, after a contentious confirmation hearing, where he was accused of sexual misconduct by Anita Hill. He’s now been on the Court for three decades — longer than any other sitting justice.

From the bench, Thomas’s hardline positions have bedeviled the left and made him a hero of the American right. Which means lots of people have strong feelings about him. But the strange thing about Thomas is that he seems to be mostly misunderstood by both his supporters and detractors — at least according to political theorist Corey Robin.

I invited Robin to join me for an episode of Vox Conversations. (Our discussion aired last month.) Robin’s a professor at Brooklyn College and he wrote a fascinating book on the life and thought of Thomas back in 2019 called The Enigma of Clarence Thomas. This past summer, he wrote a New Yorker piece on Thomas in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

We talk about the many contradictions in Thomas’s life, how he became an unlikely champion of modern conservatism, and why he still doesn’t believe in racial progress.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

Anyone who thinks they have a grip on Clarence Thomas’s worldview will likely be surprised to hear you make the claim that he’s a “Black nationalist.”

Corey Robin

I should say that the term “Black nationalism,” like any other political term, is very contested. People have a lot of romantic associations with the term — Third World revolution, belief in Black self-determination, belief in an authentic, distinct Black culture. And historically that has been true of some Black nationalists, but it is a very complex intellectual political tradition.

I basically follow the Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby’s definition, who understands it as a pragmatic tradition of Black organization that sees the fate of Black people in America as apart, as separate from, the fate of white America and even America as a whole. And that’s the form Clarence Thomas’s Black nationalism takes. It’s the belief that there’s a fundamental, irreconcilable difference that sees no end in sight.

Sean Illing

When Thomas was in college, he was involved with leftist Black nationalist movements, and then he pivots to the right in the ’70s. What happened?

Corey Robin

A couple of things: The first thing to note is that when he becomes politically active in the late 1960s, the Black freedom struggle is already in recession. 1968 is, of course, the year that Martin Luther King is assassinated. Malcolm X has been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy has been assassinated.

And it’s also the final year where there’s really big legislative achievements for African Americans. And everything that happens after that is always less than what had come before. So the specter of defeat, the specter of loss, hangs over Clarence Thomas’s engagement with Black nationalism from the very beginning. This is not an optimistic, upward-looking movement. This is a movement that’s trying to come to terms with defeat. That’s the first thing.

The second thing relates to this belief in a grim future. A lot of Black nationalists at this point start to focus more on the local level. They begin to experiment with what we would call forms of capitalism. They no longer believe in the power of politics. And when I say politics, I mean that broadly defined, whether it’s electoral politics, social movements, protests, radical action. What they think is that they have to find some way to achieve economic sovereignty.

And so that is really the backdrop to Thomas’s move to the right. It’s the sense of defeat over the Black freedom struggle. And also the beginning of his engagement with forms of economic capitalist activity, which has a long history in the Black nationalist tradition, from Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X. There are parts of Malcolm X’s autobiography that talk about the importance of Black ownership of businesses and Black hiring and all that kind of stuff.

Sean Illing

Thomas is deeply, almost instinctively, opposed to anything that smacks of what you call, or maybe what he calls, “white paternalism.”

Corey Robin

You can see echoes of Malcolm X here. And I should say that he read Malcolm X’s autobiography in his freshman year of college. He had posters of Malcolm X all around his dorm room. He memorized the speeches of Malcolm X by listening to recordings.

So Malcolm X was a really formative influence on him. And Malcolm X, like many Black nationalists, had this distinction between two types of white people. There’s the overt racist, “the wolf,” as Malcolm X calls him, who is completely honest and open in his or her racism and makes no pretense about his or her assumption of Black racial inferiority. That’s the kind of racist Thomas would’ve encountered in the South.

Then there’s the white liberal, who’s not overtly hateful, who’s sympathetic and wants to help. But in the act of offering help will always remind you of the help that he or she has offered, will never let you forget that there but for the grace of me go you. And Malcolm X called this person “the fox.”

Thomas has his own animal iconography that he used. He compares the copperhead to the water moccasin. But it’s the same typology. And that is the white paternalist, somebody who wants to help, but will never let you forget that he or she has helped you. And that with the helping hand that they extend with one hand, they take away with the other.

And Thomas has this very vivid moment in his memoir where he says that he got as far as he did in the South in spite of his race. And it was very clear that everything he achieved, and not only that he achieved, but that the Black community achieved, was ours because it was in spite of our race.

When he comes to the North, he says the message is clear: You got here because of your race. Race is a helping hand. And then he says, this is just this obfuscation, this lack of clarity, whereby we are no longer the authors of our own achievement. We have co-authors, we have helpers, we have editors, we have facilitators, and they’re all white. And this is a devastating moment of existential crisis for Thomas. It leads him to forever loathe anything that smacks of white paternalism, which he thinks is, in the end, more dangerous than white racism.

Sean Illing

I have a hard time understanding his belief that it’s impossible — foolish, really — to reimagine or even improve race relations. Like, I accept that racism has been a recurring feature of human life nearly everywhere, and I don’t imagine a racism-free future, but one doesn’t have to believe in that kind of fantasy to believe in the reality of progress—

Corey Robin

There are a couple of things I’d say about that. The first is to remember that he’s an ideologue. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. This is somebody who takes an idea all the way to the end. And he’s always been that way. He believes in following an idea to its logical conclusion. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that we really can’t underestimate the impact of being part of a moment of social and political hope, making tremendous sacrifices, and I’m not talking about Thomas himself so much as all the Black activists and all the people who created the Black freedom struggle of which he was a part, and then seeing it defeated. And it’s a corrosive defeat. It’s the drip, drip, drip of seeing the gains go down slowly. To me, this makes it at least understandable and intelligible.

I mean, I’ve been involved in left political circles since I was in graduate school and on a much smaller scale. And I think it’s hard to sustain hope in the face of defeat — not in the face of oppression, not in the face of injustice, but in the face of mobilizing all these people and thinking history is about to be made in a certain way. And to then see it stop.

Destroying the legal basis of Jim Crow was obviously a massive social victory, but that was supposed to be just the beginning, that wasn’t supposed to be the end goal. And so I think it’s hard to underestimate the impact of that on people.

Sean Illing

He’s not just pessimistic about race, though. He’s extremely pessimistic about the very idea of government. He doesn’t believe in it. He doesn’t believe it can protect citizens.

Corey Robin

Right, and that’s connected with his ideas about race, because he thinks the government is always going to be government of the white majority. And if you believe that the white majority is incurably racist, there are not many possibilities here.

Sean Illing

How would you describe his influence on the Court since he got there more than three decades ago? I mean, this is a guy who’s often caricatured on the left, like he’s some kind of conservative patsy or something. But that is so comically wrong and misses how serious and consequential he is.

Corey Robin

That’s part of the enigma of Clarence Thomas to me. It’s not just that he’s this Black nationalist or conservative Black nationalist — we’ve seen that before. It’s that he’s on the Supreme Court and he’s achieved all this power and nobody seems to know it or see it.

Sean Illing

You said something to me a couple years ago about Thomas’s conservatism and how it’s an example of where real racial pessimism leads. This is something you thought the political left needed to wrestle with. We’re both on the left and I have to say that I think you were right to be worried. To the extent the American left is even a remotely coherent thing, I’m not sure it’s interrogated Thomas’s ideological journey and thought about how that kind of racial despair is a political dead-end—

Corey Robin

One of my favorite books, which you may have also read, is Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction. Hirschman was a social scientist and economist. And he said there were three main kinds of reactionary arguments.

One was perversity. And that is, if you try to make things better, you’re gonna make them the opposite. You’re gonna make it worse. So if you try to solve poverty, you’re just going to create more poverty.

A second argument is jeopardy. And that is, you try to do one thing, you may achieve it, but you’re gonna jeopardize something else. So again, you try to solve the problem of poverty, but you end up destroying the Black family.

But he said there’s a third argument. He called it “futility” and said this is the most dangerous, most toxic, most lethal conservative argument there is, in part because the left has its own version of it. And the futility argument says, you can have every revolution you want. You can have every Civil Rights Bill, every Voting Rights Act. You can have every Inflation Reduction Act you want, every Climate Change Act. But in the end, you can’t do a damn thing. It is absolutely futile. It’s hopeless. Because politics is really not a sphere that can either transform or ameliorate the human condition.

And what Hirschman said is that the left has its own version of that argument, which we call structural arguments. A certain kind of Marxist loves to throw this gauntlet down against liberal reformers. You think this bill is blah, blah, blah, but look at the structure of power! I mean, I’m being very crude here and deliberately provocative, but the basic argument is that unless you deal with structure, everything is just window dressing, right? That’s the version of the argument on the left.

And it’s not just about race. It can apply to a great many things. But I think that in the United States, at least, which is what I know best, race was always the master explainer of political futility. And so I think the left has to be really, really careful. Knowing these dangers that Hirschman talks about, knowing the role of race as a master explainer. It often carries the edge of futilitarianism.

That’s my concern today. There’s a tendency to elevate melancholy, elevate persistence and survival — but not transformation. And I don’t think you can will hope into being. But we have to be careful on the other end. Like there’s a reason why these discourses are so prominent and persuasive and powerful. They mirror a world that we live in. And it’s hard to believe in getting yourself out of that world.

But I think that’s where it’s not just a kind of optimism of the will. You have to start identifying chinks in the armor. Marx was always very interested in the points of vulnerability. This is why he spoke so much about crises in capitalism. And we have to do a version of that today. Because I’ve never been part of a political movement that got anywhere by telling people that nothing’s gonna change, but boy you really ought to try and go down fighting. You get some people, but you’re not gonna get the kind of power you need from it.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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