The Enigma of Clarence Thomas: On sale today!

by Corey Robin on September 24, 2019

I’ve been on an extended hiatus from Crooked Timber. Trying to finish a book, teaching new classes, and generally trying to stay off the internet to get some new writing and thinking done. But I’m really happy to come back to announce that The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, a book I’ve been working on for six years and periodically blogging about here, goes on sale today.

With the help of a rave review in this morning’s New York Times. In the Times, Jennifer Szalai writes:

It’s a provocative thesis, but one of the marvels of Robin’s razor-sharp book is how carefully he marshals his evidence. He doesn’t have to resort to elaborate speculation or armchair psychologizing, relying instead on Thomas’s speeches, interviews and Supreme Court opinions. Just as jurists make ample use of the written record, Robin does the same.

The result is rigorous yet readable, frequently startling yet eminently persuasive.

It isn’t every day that reading about ideas can be both so gratifying and unsettling, and Robin’s incisive and superbly argued book has made me think again.


If you’d like to read a little more about the book, there was a long excerpt of it two weeks ago in The New Yorker. It also has been widely reviewed—among other places, in BookforumThe AtlanticHarper’s, and National Review, which, despite the criticisms, called the book “thoroughly researched and engagingly written…a valuable and overdue engagement.” I was also interviewed about the book in Vanity Fair.

You can buy the book at Amazon, or if you prefer other vendors, there’s a list here.

I hope you will get the book. I worked long and hard on it, and not only do I think it does something new, but I think that you’ll learn something new. A lot of people have an understandable block against Thomas, not really wanting to hear much about him at all. This book won’t convince you he’s any less dangerous or toxic than you already think he is. Nor is it designed to do that. Instead, it will convince you that he’s far more interesting, and speaks to many more constituencies, than you might have thought. And is, therefore, perhaps, even more dangerous and unsettling. And thus worth learning about.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

{ 25 comments }

1

brice 09.24.19 at 5:50 pm

I’ve been to several talks by a Vice President for Diversity at a large flagship state university (top 10 nationally) and the thing that struck me was how often he would bring up recondite examples of minorities that were being economically successful vs., say, the African-American community living in the same neighborhood (e.g. Vietnamese small business-owners in New Orleans). I wonder if Clarence Thomas also saw some “model minority” doing well and decided that was the way to go.

The Neocons come to mind, but the question is was their any particular personality (e.g. MLK’s “brain trust”) who inspired Clarence. Many a Neocon abandoned their youthful idealism and became hard-core Zionists who brought a superpower to it’s knees (it’s mostly forgotten how intense, and embarrassing, the pressure was on USSR in the 70’s about plight of Russian Jews) and whose ethnically-oriented state of a few million was keeping hundreds of millions of Arabs in a state of perpetual “grovelling” (as the South African Boers used to refer to their policy toward “kaffirs”).

2

LFC 09.24.19 at 7:05 pm

Read quickly the linked excerpt in The New Yorker. Very well written, as I would expect from C. Robin.

The excerpt discusses, among other things, Thomas’s opposition to assimilationism, integration (at least in some forms — presumably he doesn’t object to blacks and whites sitting next to each other on the subway), and affirmative action, tracing this opposition to the black nationalism Thomas embraced as an undergraduate at Holy Cross in the late ’60s. Thomas, according to the excerpt if I read it correctly, believes that the path to salvation for blacks lies in establishing their own institutions.

Yet Thomas chose to attend an overwhelmingly white college and law school, chose to serve in the overwhelmingly white Reagan administration, accepted an appointment to an overwhelmingly white Supreme Court. This looks arguably like cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy.

And what success has Thomas had on the Court in furthering his black nationalist agenda? To a casual observer, not a whole lot. The Court majority these days is pretty much where Thomas is on affirmative action (albeit for different reasons, as C. Robin points out in the excerpt), but a majority is nowhere near overturning Brown v. Board, which Thomas presumably thinks was wrongly decided, since Thomas rejects the idea that segregation in itself is harmful to black students, which was central to Brown’s rationale.

I find this whole topic (i.e., Thomas) sad and depressing (YMMV), and I admire C. Robin’s ability to immerse himself in Thomas’s life and views without becoming depressed. (I don’t mean clinically depressed, just really bummed out, to use an old slang expression.)

3

LFC 09.24.19 at 7:58 pm

P.s. It’s true that the current SCOTUS majority does not favor government action to deal with de facto (as opposed to de jure) school segregation (and de facto segregation is what most if not all school segregation is today), so in that sense the majority’s view and Thomas’s coincide. But Thomas apparently goes further than that.

4

dilbert dogbert 09.24.19 at 7:58 pm

Immediately “Black Segregationist” came to mind.

5

LFC 09.25.19 at 1:02 pm

The young Clarence Thomas read Richard Wright and Malcolm X, among others, but I wonder if Thomas has ever read the theorists (for lack of a better word) of apartheid, e.g. Jan Smuts. Different historical contexts etc., but I’d think there might be certain themes in common.

6

otto 09.25.19 at 4:03 pm

Intellectual and political biographies (nb not hagiographies) of US supreme court justices are just my thing. Already 20 pages into this one and enjoying it.

Is the US the only country that produces these sorts of judicial biographies?

7

Ebenezer Scrooge 09.26.19 at 2:17 am

LFC@2: The Supreme Court will probably keep Brown v. Board on the books forever, but it is a dead letter. Legally enforceable school segregation is very much alive and well in the US, if the segregators are reasonably careful to play the segregation game by the rules.

8

Fake Dave 09.26.19 at 5:12 am

Count me among the people who wrote off Clarence Thomas as an intellectual blank. I’m not much of a legal scholar (unless you count watching too much Forensics Files), so I think I heard the stories of him sitting in sullen silence during oral arguments and thought there just wasn’t any there there. Back when Scalia was alive, people often belittled Thomas as a sort of sidekick or useful idiot. Supposedly, he just followed the opinions of the leading white conservatives for the same misguided reasons the Marshall Islands always voted with the US and Israel. I’m glad we have someone like CR challenging those assumptions.

It’s true that there is a thriving population of intellectual mercenaries in the US who will do just about anything to suck up to the rich and powerful, but that doesn’t mean Thomas is one of them. I think it was always just more comfortable to write him off as a sellout or a dim bulb than accept that he actually means it.

9

john 09.26.19 at 11:25 am

It’s interesting that Enigma focuses on Thomas personalized theories with little to say about his contributions to constitutional jurisprudence–which would be expected of a high court justice. Nor is there any examination of Thomas’ connection to architects and theorists of black nationalism (as a political/economic theory, black nationalism existed long before Wright and Malcolm X) . As LFC points out, what is the evidence of Thomas advancing such an genda in his life and through his judicial career?

10

LFC 09.26.19 at 2:47 pm

Ebenezer @7
Point taken.

11

musical mountaineer 09.26.19 at 9:58 pm

Corey,

Some time ago I read with interest and satisfaction your excerpt in the New Yorker, without noticing it was you who wrote it. I am not a fan of your work, though I must thank you for having been the occasional voice of sanity when people on your own side were needlessly freaking out.

I liked the piece on Clarence Thomas a lot. I had some inkling of his background before, but I was never previously aware that he was a Black Radical. Good to know.

In the old days, astronomers had difficulty explaining the locations of planets they saw in their telescopes. They were still thinking in terms of Celestial Mechanics; the idea of a general force of gravitation with interlocking elliptical orbits hadn’t been worked out yet. One bright fellow introduced the concept of an “epicycle”, a mechanism that works kind of like a spirograph, with circle-centers orbiting other circles. Using this concept, astronomers could develop a Celestial Mechanics to explain anything they saw in the telescope. It was a disaster; as long as the epicycle business lasted, astronomers came no closer to a better explanation.

It is the same, I’m afraid, with your scholarship on people like Clarence Thomas and me. Your approach to the topic is un-falsifiable, and at the same time false. This White American Patriot Conservative loves this Black Radical on the Supreme Court. You can explain to your friends why Clarence Thomas and myself are both bad people, but you won’t let yourself understand what Clarence Thomas and a hillbilly like me really have in common. It’s on your six, in the Blind Spot of the Left. I’ll do what I can to keep you informed, friend.

12

Jake Gibson 09.27.19 at 1:01 am

@musical mountaineer.
I suspect white nationalist would be a more accurate, if not complementary, discription.
I consider myself an American patriot, because I love the inclusionary ideals of the American experiment. Even if I hate our failure to live up to them.

13

LFC 09.27.19 at 1:27 am

john @9
In fairness to Corey R., ‘Enigma’ does indeed deal with Thomas’s jurisprudence (though not every single aspect of it), as a glance at the book’s intro will show. The argument, as I understand it, is that the jurisprudence and the personal worldview can’t be separated — that the latter manifests itself in the jurisprudence. Having only read the New Yorker excerpt and not the book, I will refrain from further comment, at least of a judgmental sort.

14

dh 09.27.19 at 3:29 pm

11.

Poor Crooked Timber, reduced to your fascism.

15

Walt 09.27.19 at 3:50 pm

Corey, congratulations on the new books! It sounds interesting.

MM, does it matter why you do what you do? (Why Thomas does what he does is at least a little bit interesting.) I spent a long time trying to understand conservativism in terms of how they see themselves. For years, I would listen to other leftists who would scoff, and just assume that conservatives were despicable, and would do the thing a despicable person would do. And you know what? They were usually right, and I was usually wrong. One thing Trump cured me of is the illusion that there is some actual moral core to conservativism. I don’t know if the stories conservatives tell are just for the rest of us, or for themselves, but I do know they don’t mean much. After all, Kepler didn’t figure out what the planets did by asking them.

16

RobinM 09.27.19 at 10:45 pm

I don’t know why the musical mountaineer thought an astronomical sketch would illuminate your intellectual failings, but the mention of “Celestial Mechanics” surely sounds intimidating. And “un-falsifiable, and at the same time false”?

Anyway, that’s a very interesting interview with you about your book at:

http://bostonreview.net/race/joshua-cohen-corey-robin-conservative-black-nationalism-clarence-thomas

17

Corey Robin 09.28.19 at 2:13 am

John @ 9: My book has nine chapters. Three of them are about Thomas’s intellectual and political biography, the development of his ideas off the Court. Six are about his jurisprudence on the Court.

18

Collin Street 09.28.19 at 2:49 am

I don’t know why the musical mountaineer thought an astronomical sketch would illuminate your intellectual failings, but the mention of “Celestial Mechanics” surely sounds intimidating.

Epicycles get a bad rap: circles is sine waves is fourier analysis. And “what are the angles of all the regularly-rotating circles at time X” is a shitload more mathematically tractable than running a differential equation. I mean, particularly at the time, hard to use techniques that won’t be developed until centuries later, but even today the actual ephemeredes — which are, to point out, still safety-critical documents upon which lives depend — are calculated by summing various perturbations and orbital elements rather than the full theory.

19

kanonbet 09.28.19 at 2:28 pm

Nice post… keep going..

20

john 09.28.19 at 8:32 pm

Thank you, Mr. Robin, for your note. Before commenting, I read the O’Donnell and National Review articles; both emphasized Thomas’ background and personal philosophies and thus my interpretation. Unfortunately I did not read The New Yorker excerpt, having reached my on-line limit with its article on black farmers losing their land–also covered in Atlantic issue with review of Enigma. I can only imagine Mr. Thomas’ views on that situation.

21

Dr Steve Cruel 09.29.19 at 12:22 am

Hi Corey,

I’ve very much enjoyed reading about this book, and intend to pick it up. Do you have a preferred vendor for us to purchase from? Is there any difference to you in royalties/reimbursement?

22

musical mountaineer 09.29.19 at 3:01 am

@18 Collin Street

Point taken: epicycles can be a valuable descriptive and predictive tool, good enough indeed for all practical purposes. The “disaster”, I guess, is being satisfied with epicycles. Proceeding to the relativistic model, we get much more accurate descriptions and predictions, and we also get predictions that can’t be expressed in epicycle terms. Relativity may not be practically necessary or useful, but it seems to more closely and completely express some kind of truth.

My critique of Mr. Robin’s ideas may be analogous. I suppose Corey can describe or predict with reasonable accuracy what a Conservative like me will do or say in response to a proposition. He has a model which seems to work. But I know very well where he is mistaken.

I did not previously know the word “ephemederes”. I’ll try to keep it in mind.

23

musical mountaineer 09.29.19 at 3:15 am

RobinM @16

“un-falsifiable, and at the same time false”?

“…within the scope of understanding of the model, the model itself cannot be falsified. However, models can be developed beyond that scope of understanding, compared to which the original model seems false.”

24

musical mountaineer 09.29.19 at 3:31 am

CT commenters, before I go away for another couple of days, I want to politely remind everyone that I am subject to a general DFTT order by JQ. I could easily engage comments 12, 14 or 15 and derail this thread completely.

I only engage trivial comments in old worn-out threads. Carry on.

25

Mike Furlan 09.29.19 at 2:43 pm

Well, I guess I need to read the book, especially after seeing the opinion piece in today’s Times.

I know other Black Conservatives, all well educated intelligent successful nice people to be around. But they seem to have something common. Either family wealth that they want to guard from higher taxes, or a tragic encounter with other black folks that puts them in the “Law and Order” camp. But I’ve never heard any of them arguing that Black people should give up their voting rights.

Like I said, I need to read the book.

But the opinion piece seems like it could be rephrased, “Quisling, was not a ‘Sellout'”. Say Norwegians did band together against the Germans, which group would have gotten the hell kicked out of it? True, but depressing.

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