The text in this article and more information about the book can be found on the Graduate Center page “The Clarence Thomas You Don’t Know, But Should,” here. You can also read Jennifer Szalai’s review of Professor Robin’s book in the New York Times, here.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is reviled by many fellow African Americans, and most white conservatives who embrace him don’t fully understand him. As Professor Corey Robin (GC/Brooklyn, Political Science) points out in his widely praised new book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, “the only things most Americans know about him are that he once was accused of sexual harassment and that he almost never speaks from the bench.”
In about 300 pages and accompanying essays, Robin sets out to change that. Relying on Thomas’ voluminous opinions — more than 700 overall — as well as Thomas’ essays, book, and speeches, Robin brings Thomas out from the shadows. He depicts him as a politician whose pessimism about race and the American political system is emblematic of our time and at the root of a pervading cynicism on both the left and the right.
“The story of Clarence Thomas is the story of the last half century of American politics and the long shadow of defeat that hangs over it,” Robin writes.
Robin makes the case that “race is the foundational principle” of Thomas’ “philosophy and jurisprudence.” Where other scholars view Thomas’ involvement in the black nationalist movement in the 1960s as a detour on his political trajectory, Robin considers it the bedrock of Thomas’ belief that racism is an intractable part of American political life and that African Americans’ only possibility for advancement exists in separate institutions apart from whites.
Thomas, Robin argues, veered toward conservatism and republicanism in response to the defeat of the black nationalist movement.
“He is what happens to a certain kind of black nationalism in a moment of massive conservative retrenchment when the whole culture … stops believing in the power of political amelioration the way that they once did between the 1930s and the early ’70s,” Robin told interviewer Jamelle Bouie in a sold-out book-launch event at the New York Public Library.
Robin asserts that Thomas’ pessimism about whites and politics underlie Thomas’ most contentious opinions. Thomas is opposed to affirmative action because it makes whites feel benevolent while they merely extend their elitism and further disempower African Americans. He is against expanding voting rights for African Americans because they perpetuate the “terrible illusion” that “African Americans might find an exercise power in the political realm.”
To Robin, Thomas’ dismissiveness of politics is not an anomaly.
“There has been a winnowing sense of what politics can do, not just on the question of race, but on a whole host of fronts,” Robin said at the library. “Just think about climate change. The idea that political leadership could transform this sort of system, I think, seems unfathomable to many people. … I think a lot of this is rooted in this defeat of the black freedom struggle in the 1960s and ’70s.”
“I reject almost all of Thomas’ views,” Robin writes in his book. Yet, in explaining them he hopes that we understand how they shape the pessimism that pervades politics on both the left and the right.