Tuesday, April 30, 2013

a review of Clarence Thomas' auto-biography, My Grandfather's Son

Thomas auto-biography is a relatively easy read-- interesting, well-written, and not that long-- ranging from childhood through his Supreme Court nomination.

He opens by reflecting on the process of writing the book-- that it required "plowing up long-untilled parts of my past. It was a new experience and a strange one. I'd never been in the habit of looking back at the portion of my life that I'd already lived. Most of the time, I needed all my strength to deal with the life I was then living, with all of its uncertainties, doubts and fears." (p. ix) And then this summary: "It is the story of an ordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened." (ix) The purpose of the book: "to bear witness to what these people [particularly his grandfather] did for me...an accurate record of my own life as I remember it...I didn't want to leave the telling to those with careless hands or malicious hearts." (x)

He was raised initially by his mother in abject poverty (3-5), including no bathroom and no electricity except for a single light. After their house burned down, they moved into Savannah-- "from the comparative safety and cleanliness of rural poverty to the foulest kind of urban squalor" (6). At some point, his mother decided that it would be better for Clarence and his brother to be raised by her parents. 

On his father (p. 2): "For years my brother and I would ask ourselves how a man could show no interest in his own children. I still wonder." But then this summary statement about his grandfather as father (p. 28): "As I grew older...I came to appreciate what I had not understood as a child: I had been raised by the greatest man I have ever known." His grandfather was a hard man, but a good man. I really liked this nugget about him: "Daddy always seemed to be preparing for rainy days. Maybe that's why they never came." (25)

Thomas initially went into training to become a priest. But the church's failure to address race adequately-- and a desire to live life on his own terms-- led him away from the priesthood and even the church. He struggled with alcohol and divorced his first wife (his "biggest mistake"), before getting his life together and remarriage.
Not surprisingly, race plays a large part of his upbringing and in his intellectual influences. He mentions and quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird, Native Son and Invisible Man. In terms of economics, race, and social policy, he says that Thomas Sowell's Race and Economics was pivotal (105-106). He also points to Walter Williams' academic work (126-127) as a key influence.  

About the North and the South, Thomas says "It was in Boston, not Georgia, that a white man had called me nigger 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. Now that their own problems were on display [with the riots in Boston over integrated public schools], I was unsympathetic." (78)
Thomas also depicts the tension in the African-American community over different shades of "blackness" (29-30; e.g., Thomas' nickname, growing up, was ABC-- "America's Blackest Child"), even in higher education (43a). Likewise, along with many others, he experienced ironic opposition to attending predominantly white schools (37, 54). Both of these are key themes in Spike Lee's provocative movie, School Daze.

Thomas repeatedly acknowledges-- and laments-- that he benefited from "Affirmative Action", at least in the short-term. "As much as it stung to be told that I'd done well in the seminary despite my race, it was far worse to fell that I was not at Yale because of it." (74-75, 231) After law school at Yale, he couldn't get a job despite his pedigree (86, 99). 

He experienced other downsides of Affirmative Action: Thomas Sowell describes the mismatches that occur because certain minorities are promoted to better schools; Shelby Steele writes about stereotyping (statistical discrimination)-- where people reasonably interpret you in light of the favors you might have received; Monsanto over-hired to fill quotas and then let workers languish (114); he was chosen as head of EEOC, in part, because he was black; but people assumed the worst about him because he had been appointed by Reagan (161).

Thomas drops a lot of names-- par for the course, I suppose, in a book like this. He appropriately trashes Carl Rowan (155); my encounters with him in DC were sad. (For those in Louisville, imagine a poor man's Betty Baye). In contrast, he praises Juan Williams throughout. They have had a long relationship and Williams provided a big defense of Thomas in the WaPo during his Supreme Court confirmation (274). Abner Mikva takes a beating-- first as a tool (206) and then as the source of a probable leak from the Court of Appeals (246-247). Howard Metzenbaum comes off like a jerk (221). Al Gore and Bob Packwood come off like hard-core politicians (222). Joe Biden, chair of the Judiciary Committee, is depicted as conniving and too-clever-by-half (235-236, 242). He has kind words for Vernon Jordan, despite their differences (227). And he absolutely glows when talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (205, 216-217). 

Of course, there's plenty on Anita Hill: how they were introduced (140); his initial impressions of her (140-141's detested Reagan; political animal; adequate work); her wanting to follow Thomas to EEOC (150); her ugly responses to not being chosen for a promotion (171-173); her continued communication with him after she left the EEOC (179); Thomas saying he had "penciled her in as a liberal whom I could call as a witness on my behalf" (230); her allegations during the confirmation (242-245); the leak of her confidential statement and the resulting brouhaha (249-253); and a brief overview of the holes in her assertions (256-257). His conclusion about this strange matter: "My guess was that a combination of ego, ambition, and immaturity had caused her to let herself to be drawn into the effort to destroy me..." (265)

Thomas alludes to politics a few times in ways I found interesting. We forget that judicial nominees were generally granted quite a bit of deference until the Democratic Senate went after Robert Bork in 1987. After that, the incentives changed toward choosing judges with less experience-- and more importantly, less of a judicial trail. David Souter was chosen before Thomas-- and was equally inexperienced-- setting what should have been an easier table for Thomas (207, 216). 

Pre-Thomas and pre-Reagan, the EEOC was in a dump (LOL!) and poorly-run (155). Toward the end of his time there, the WaPo praised his work there (191). As his last large project, he moved the EEOC to a much nicer building that was handicap-accessible (194-195). Interestingly, Thomas voluntarily put a disabled person on the building committee (195), not relying on a quota to reach that decision (my snarky comment, not his). 

Thomas noted, then, the need for a positive civil-rights agenda (178)-- something that the GOP continues to struggle with. The Democrats have a largely damaging positive agenda for African-Americans. The GOP lacks the political will, compassion, and/or policy creativity to put together a positive, constructive agenda.

He also has some great examples of rhetoric used against his work there (161): "When I reassigned staff to match workforce with workload, I was 'gutting' the agency; when I declined to pursue fruitless lawsuits, I was 'cutting back on enforcement'. What's more, these staffers had the ear of members of Congress who were too busy to do anything but take their false claims at face value."

Thomas naively entered politics, thinking that it was governed by benevolence: "I'd naively supposed that I was joining a community of people who had chosen to work in politics to do some good in our society." (162). After his time in Washington, especially after the confirmation, his Mom, a lifelong staunch Democrat said she would vote for a dog before a Democrat (240).

While we're at it: Here's a really nice piece on Clarence Thomas and his judicial work by Damon Root in Reason...


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