Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas

by Corey Robin on April 18, 2014

1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War.

2. Clarence Thomas grew up a stone’s throw from the Moon River that Audrey Hepburn sang about in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

3. In the 1970s, Clarence Thomas kept a Confederate flag on his desk. [Correction: It was the Georgia State flag, which features quite prominently the Confederate stars and bars. It was a large flag, apparently, and he hung it over his desk.]

4. There’s a law review article about Clarence Thomas called “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism.”

5. Clarence Thomas attended antiwar rallies in Boston where he called for the release of Angela Davis and Erica Huggins.

6. Clarence Thomas told Juan Williams that “there is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”

7. Clarence Thomas is the only Supreme Court justice to have cited Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in his opinions.

8. In college, Clarence Thomas hung posters of Malcolm X on his wall, memorized his speeches, and studied his writings. “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” he told Reason in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”

9. Clarence Thomas does not believe in color-blindness: “I don’t think this society has ever been color-blind. I grew up in Savannah, Georgia under segregation. It wasn’t color-blind and America is not color-blind today…Code words like ‘color-blind’ aren’t all that useful.”

10. Yale Law scholar Akhil Reed Amar has compared Clarence Thomas to Hugo Black:

Both were Southerners who came to the Court young and with very little judicial experience. Early in their careers, they were often in dissent, sometimes by themselves, but they were content to go their own way. But once Earl Warren became Chief Justice the Court started to come to Black. It’s the same with Thomas and the Roberts Court. Thomas’s views are now being followed by a majority of the Court in case after case.

11. Clarence Thomas resents the fact that as a black man he is not supposed to listen to Carole King.



JakeB 04.18.14 at 3:27 am

Okay, I just want to be the first to say that reading some of these facts, I feel the earth move under my feet.


LFC 04.18.14 at 3:35 am

Re #10: I don’t doubt Akhil Amar knows what he’s talking about (though I note this quote is from a few years ago), but the comparison between Hugo Black and Clarence Thomas, no matter how narrowly focused, feels like an insult to Black. At least that’s my admittedly subjective reaction.


Chris Mealy 04.18.14 at 3:55 am

Thomas sounds like he could have been a terrific internet troll.


A H 04.18.14 at 4:15 am

None of these is that surprising if you assume Thomas is both a self aware black man and a corpratist asshole.


John Holbo 04.18.14 at 9:07 am

I’m most gobsmacked by his Walter Sobchak-worthy justification for the Confederate flag. “They discriminated but they were honest about it.” Say what you will, it’s an ethos!

The Carole King thing is funny. I can imagine that he did feel peer pressure in college not to listen to Carole King. In his defense, he doesn’t sound too resentful about it. Just bemused. Which is the proper attitude to take towards peer pressure, seen through the rear view mirror.


Nemo 04.18.14 at 11:25 am

#3- Actually I’ve read that it was a State of Georgia flag, not a Confederate flag that Thomas had on his desk in the 1970s. At the time the Georgia flag incorporated the Confedrate battle flag.



Main Street Muse 04.18.14 at 12:05 pm

I know someone who worked for him and thought he was a fantastic boss. Nothing but good things to say about him.

It was apparently the state of Georgia flag, misreported by journalists: http://nyti.ms/1thD25Y

Fascinating that he once idolized Malcolm X. I am of the opinion that several of Malcolm X’s teachings have been adopted by the GOP (though clearly, black nationalism is ignored by that party.) Certainly, “by any means necessary….” is the mantra of Dick Cheney and the like.

#6 is a most interesting statement from Thomas.

JakeB @1 wins the Internets today!


Corey Robin 04.18.14 at 12:36 pm

John Holbo: In context, it doesn’t read to me as bemused. Resentful may not be quite right either. Defiant, angry, determined. But definitely not bemused. This is the section where he is beginning to articulate his credo of personal authenticity, refusing to conform to the norms, tastes, and beliefs not merely of his peers in college but of black people more generally.


Ronan(rf) 04.18.14 at 1:22 pm

Are these not predictable enough opinions for a black conservative to hold, and wouldn’t it make since that an African American conservative would associate (somewhat) with Malcolm X, black nationalism and the concepts of self reliance it pushed at times ?
Genuine questions, as I don’t know (or know much about Thomas’ rhetoric/opinions in general)


John Holbo 04.18.14 at 2:24 pm

“I’ve read that it was a State of Georgia flag, not a Confederate flag”

That does sound more likely.

“Resentful may not be quite right either. Defiant, angry, determined. But definitely not bemused. This is the section where he is beginning to articulate his credo of personal authenticity, refusing to conform to the norms, tastes, and beliefs not merely of his peers in college but of black people more generally.”

I did get that. I sort of skimmed the context. (I can’t claim to have done more reading than that.) I guess it could be either way. It’s funnier your way, with him glowering defensively over his Carole King; but it is possible that he meant to strike a lighter touch, even while glowering.


stevenjohnson 04.18.14 at 2:33 pm

” I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”

Contacts or opportunities don’t actually have much with being educated or good. Personally I would think that they are more or less the opposite of being equal, overriding education and skill or creativity. So to me this reads as a blast of outrage that the superior black can’t get the same class privileges as the superior white, can’t really join the club. My belief is the club should be razed. Thomas’, not. The fury of self-made men who can’t make their own society can take some ugly forms, which I suppose explains the judicial opinion.


otpup 04.18.14 at 2:57 pm

Thomas’ growing influence is cause for concern, unless his views have changed. His version of strict constructionism (e.g., the most restrictive, welfare-state-busting reading of the commerce clause) is characterized as loony by Scalia (though S maybe hyping his own reputation at the expense of T but that doesn’t mitigate the problem).


Belle Waring 04.18.14 at 3:04 pm

When my college boyfriend arrived to stay at my grandma’s house in Savannah for the first time, and we went out on the upstairs porch to smoke a joint, we looked out on a big-ass GA state flag at eye-level. The night being hot and still, it was just hanging lank off the pole, and all you could see was the Confederate battle flag. My BF, from a working-class family in Deerfield, MA asked “Is that even legal? Did the Klan put that there or something” He was genuinely astonished when I told him it was the state flag (changed in the 50s in a petulant lashing out of anti-integration anger celebration of heritage, not hate, naturally.).
Two more things you did not know about Clarence Thomas:
1. He has met Belle Waring–for one second just to shake hands. I had a good friend who was a clerk for Kennedy so I got to go see oral arguments one day and then go back to the judges’ chambers where I met Thomas and Kennedy. I also sat in Scalia’s chair. It is his habit, apparently, to recline in it deeply and sit immobile for some time and then pop up suddenly to ask a devastating question, like a terrifying Jack-in-the-Box of bogus Original Intent. I practiced doing this–the reclining and the popping up. I regretted greatly not having any chewing gum to deposit under the chair but really that wouldn’t have been very nice to my friend, would it?
2. He is a native speaker of Gullah, the English-West African creole spoken by former slaves in the Low Country. Slavemasters used to be fluent in it as well, since they were raised by slaves working as wet nurses and nannies, but I don’t think there are any speakers now who identify as white. Black people in the Low Country are pretty…black, that is, dark-skinned, because of the last-minute rush to import “fresh” slaves I always figured, and the population imbalance caused by plantation rice farming (it was 20% black 80% white in S.C. at one time, but well before the Civil War). Like it says on the license plates: “smiling faces, beautiful places, separate races.”

The “Moon River” thing is because Johnny Mercer is (like Clarence Thomas!) a favorite son of Savannah. (And maybe going against what I said above, knew a lot of songs in Gullah from when he was little, they say.) When John tried to rent a car for us in the Savannah airport last summer there was some objection to his Singapore driver’s license, despite his having an International Driver’s License as well (but all that is is a flimsy piece of paper translating your license.) He was showing them his US passport and I was trying to explain the degree to which we legitimately belonged in Savannah. Then at the next counter a man asked who Johnny Mercer was, and the woman working that counter didn’t know, even though it was so familiar. And I was like, “what are you thinking ma’am!? There’s a street named after him on the way to Tybee!” And the lady behind our counter said, “didn’t you ever hear ‘Moon River’? He wrote ‘Moon River.’ But now I can’t think how that goes.” And then John sang “Moon River” with me. After that they were convinced and handed us the keys to their car.


lindamc 04.18.14 at 4:09 pm

I too have met Clarence Thomas. It was at an event more than a decade ago at the British Embassy in Washington, where I used to work. He was lovely and very convincingly feigned interest in my run-of-the-mill trade policy analyst job.

But I was predisposed to think well of him despite my very different political beliefs. A colleague of my husband’s was looking for a company to install new gutters on his house, and one salesman said that the Thomases had been among his satisfied customers. The colleague tried to verify this with Justice Thomas’ office, and much to his surprise Thomas himself returned the call and discussed at length his excellent experience with the gutter company.


sharculese 04.18.14 at 4:17 pm

@ BW, 11

“but I don’t think there are any speakers now who identify as white.”

Actually, my high school biology teacher, as white a man as could be, grew up in the low country speaking English and Gullah. He had to train himself to speak at a snail’s pace in order to teach, because that was the only way he could counterbalance the rapid-fire cadence of his natural accent.


Anderson 04.18.14 at 4:20 pm

I am a moderately vigilant SCOTUS-watcher, and I didn’t know several of these.


q 04.18.14 at 4:33 pm

I don’t think I see anything there that’s particularly surprising or that indicates any concern at all for other people. Most draft-age (or near draft-age) men were against the Vietnam War, but more out of self-interest, not necessarily out of any real commitment to peace. And I can certainly imagine that a black man in college could see Malcolm X as an inspiration for personal success. Until, like Thomas, he realized that someone was willing to pay for him to sell out, and that selling out meant dropping the Malcolm schtick.


Rob in CT 04.18.14 at 4:46 pm

I don’t know what’s in Thomas’ mind, but I doubt he “sold out.” I think he’s authentic, which to me might be scarier.


Kalkaino 04.18.14 at 4:58 pm

Yes, here in DC some surprising people say nice things about Clarence Thomas. For a guy willing to commit perjury before Congress, known to slander his own sister to make a conservative point, eager to join forces with today’s party of Jim Crow, happy to rule on cases from which is wife will benefit materially, and with a history of concealing payments to said wife from people with business before the Court, he seems to be surprisingly personable. Eichmann was apparently a pleasant dinner companion too.


jonnybutter 04.18.14 at 5:38 pm

Okay, I just want to be the first to say that reading some of these facts, I feel the earth move under my feet.

The lyric that comes to mind for me is ‘Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time.’ Not because I think he’s lazy; it just sounds like something a taciturn guy like him might do.


Ben Alpers 04.18.14 at 5:47 pm

At the risk of descending into even deeper levels of vexillological pedantry, the Confederate battle flag (which was incorporated in the Georgia state flag from 1956-2001) is not the Stars and Bars…though it’s frequently mislabeled that way. The actual Stars and Bars was the first national flag of the Confederacy, which has incidentally been the basis of Georgia’s state flag since 2003.


Layman 04.18.14 at 5:49 pm

Only took 19 comments before Godwin’s Law intervenes. Must be some kinda record.


Corey Robin 04.18.14 at 5:58 pm

Actually, given the way some on the left refuse to believe some of this stuff about Thomas, or try to dismiss it, I think this might be the most appropriate Carole King song. (Remember, she wrote a lot of songs that were made famous by other artists.)


(Sorry, just really wanted an excuse to post this song, which is so fantastic.)


sam enderby 04.18.14 at 6:14 pm

Hanging Malcolm’s picture and memorizing his words hasn’t helped Justice Thomas do justice for anybody except very rich white men. How’d that happen?


Djinn 04.18.14 at 6:21 pm

This seems like a much more appropriate Carole King song for Clarence Thomas:


He hit me and it Felt like a Kiss.


Donald Johnson 04.18.14 at 6:22 pm

I didn’t know some of this, and didn’t find it surprising, and don’t understand what the point is. What’s next? Dick Cheney has a gay daughter?


Kalkaino 04.18.14 at 6:45 pm

Layaman at 22 — Cleverly put!

At least one of our two parties is racist, kleptocratic, warmongering, authoritarian, and growing moreso. But hey, can we come up with a cutesy shorthand way to delegitimize any analogy between the right-wingers of today and the fascists of yesteryear? Why thanks Dr. Godwin! When we accept your premise “Liberal Fascism” and, say, accounts of Bushite war crimes can be equally spurious. How nice for some.

Corey Robin — who, for instance, is unwilling to believe any of this humanizing detail about Clarence Thomas? It doesn’t change the fact that he’s utterly corrupt and thoroughly despicable. Grownups understand about banality of evil — it doesn’t usually foam at the mouth.


Anderson 04.18.14 at 7:10 pm

“and don’t understand what the point is”

So now blog posts have to have a “point”? When did we adopt Robert’s Fucking Rules of Order on the internet?


jonnybutter 04.18.14 at 7:43 pm

Grownups understand about banality of evil

Isn’t this stuff more interesting than simply that? I think so.

Thomas strikes me as oddly detached. Or something. He also might be a little bit of a boob, though I could be wrong. I think this quote is boobish: ““This country isn’t perfect,” Justice Thomas said, “but it’s perfectible. That’s what Lincoln’s words mean to me.”” Is that what Lincoln meant when he said ‘more perfect’? I think he meant something like the opposite. Lincoln was not a boob and would have said ‘perfectible’ if that’s what he’d meant.


Bloix 04.18.14 at 7:48 pm

Thomas earlier this year:

“My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. Now, … everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah.”

Savannah, 1960-62:

“On March 16, Black students in Savannah sit-in at eight downtown lunch counters. Three are arrested. Led by postman Westley Wallace Law of the NAACP, the local movement then demands desegregation of facilities… they call for a boycott of white-owned downtown stores.

Young activists keep the boycott strong with picket lines, sit-ins, and other forms of direct-action…

The protests and boycott continue for 19 months, from March of 1960 to October of 1961. In June of 1961 the bus line agrees to begin hiring Black drivers. In October the city agrees to desegregate parks, swimming pools, busses, and restaurants and the boycott is lifted…


Thomas was 12 in 1960. He’s old enough that he must have been aware of the boycott. But he’s young enough not to have participated. Now he pretends that he didn’t benefit from the civil rights movement, and acts as if it hindered his progress through life.


Corey Robin 04.18.14 at 7:59 pm

You don’t need to go to the historical record to correct Thomas’s views on Savannah and segregation. As I pointed out in a post earlier this year, that very statement of his — “To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up.” — practically contradicts itself. In any event, his own memoir demonstrates just how race-conscious he and Savannah were while he was growing up.

Does he actually act as if the civil rights movement hindered his progress throughout his life? I know he says that he advanced without any help from the movement (he attributes his advance entirely to his grandfather and some of his teachers), and that he complains about the ways in which affirmative action led him to be judged as less worthy than he thinks he was. He also has a fair amount of nasty things to say about civil rights leaders and officials — especially the light-skinned ones (he dwells on that a lot) — viewing him as beneath contempt b/c of his darker skin. But has he suggested that the movement actually hindered him? That I haven’t seen.


godoggo 04.18.14 at 8:17 pm

I thought Savannah was the place where males developed the mathematical parts of the brain needed for calculating breast size as a sign of female health and fertility.

Seriously folks, an earlier comment reminds me of a movie I saw part of on T.V. that I think took place in Savannah. There was a family of extremely polite but vaguely sinister rich Georgians, one of whom drawls the following exchange (more or less) with the protagonist:

“What is your favorite Johnny Mercer song?”
“Well, my mother was always partial to [I forget what song]”
“Your mother. Indeed.”

Anybody know the movie?


Corey Robin 04.18.14 at 8:33 pm

A Google search suggests that it’s from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A film that Clarence Thomas seems not to be fond of (he thinks it presents too pretty a picture of Savannah, not the Savannah he grew up in.)


Barry 04.18.14 at 8:37 pm

Rob in CT:

“I don’t know what’s in Thomas’ mind, but I doubt he “sold out.” I think he’s authentic, which to me might be scarier.”

sam enderby:

“Hanging Malcolm’s picture and memorizing his words hasn’t helped Justice Thomas do justice for anybody except very rich white men. How’d that happen?”

His ‘authenticity’ juuuuuu so happens to be very, very convenient to him and to his rich backers. Pure coincidence.


TheSophist 04.18.14 at 8:53 pm

More anecdata, and not even firsthand: My ex-stepmother (don’t ask) was once Dean of a moderately respectable Law School. Thomas spoke there, and the stepmother (a good, card-carrying liberal dem who would have been very happy to dislike him cordially) was surprised by how polite, kind, and thoughtful he was.


LFC 04.18.14 at 9:05 pm

was surprised by how polite, kind, and thoughtful he was

I don’t know where this idea comes from that right-wingers, even extreme ones, have to be ogres personally. Plenty of conservatives I’m sure are nice in person. Wm. F. Buckley, by all accounts, was. Corey, who interviewed Buckley, can presumably attest to that.


Main Street Muse 04.18.14 at 9:14 pm

Buckley was nice? Didn’t his son write about how on the way to church, he never stopped at red lights because he felt the rules did not apply to him?


Bloix 04.18.14 at 9:18 pm

#31 – He says he couldn’t get a job when he left law school because of affirmative action.


Bloix 04.18.14 at 9:20 pm

#35-37- it’s a common mistake to confuse being personable for being nice.


Donald Johnson 04.18.14 at 9:31 pm

“So now blog posts have to have a “point”? When did we adopt Robert’s Fucking Rules of Order on the internet?”

Usually people do have some sort of point when they make a statement of this sort, consisting of a series of facts. The relevance of this being on the internet or of Robert’s Rules of Order escape me. In this case, I imagine the point was that Clarence Thomas has or had some views that would be surprising to leftists, though if so these must be unobservant lefties who think that conservatives must all fit into one neat little box with the same beliefs on every issue. Thomas is the guy who during the Anita Hill controversy said he was being subjected to a “high tech lynching”. Obviously he doesn’t think America is colorblind.


LFC 04.18.14 at 9:35 pm

MSMuse 37
Didn’t his son write about how on the way to church, he never stopped at red lights because he felt the rules did not apply to him?

In case this question is non-rhetorical, my answer is: I don’t know, because I haven’t read Christopher Buckley (nor do I have plans to do so).


Layman 04.18.14 at 9:43 pm


Thomas is a bad man, I don’t doubt it. But bad as Eichmann? If you want people to take your criticism seriously, try to be serious.


Pat 04.19.14 at 1:08 am

Layman @42 et al., re: the Eichmann crap, am I the only one who remembers the Al Franken joke about telling his friends about meeting Pat Buchanan and having found him charming? “‘Yeah, well, Goebbels was charming.’ Which is really unfair, because Goebbels wasn’t at all charming. He was an ill-tempered backbiter.”

I had thought it was from the Rush Limbaugh book, but Internet says instead it’s from an interview.


rustypleb 04.19.14 at 3:26 am

Here’s another interesting one. Thomas owns a motor home like a Winnebago and one of if not his favorite hobby/getaway/means of relaxation is traveling the country where he reputedly often camps The night in Walmart parking lots. (A practice Walmart condones or encourages) where he reportedly also mingles with the hoi polloi and true to form is described as just about as nice a fella as you’d ever meet. Sorry no reference but bet it’ll come right up on Google.


Glen Tomkins 04.19.14 at 4:19 am

A pretty average kind of person had a few idiosyncrasies as well. Then he decides in early middle age to be a sort of professional contrarian for the team that seemed to be winning at the time, so sure, he acquired a reputation at odds with big chunks of where he came from.

You’ld have to be a Shakespeare to make this story at all interesting. But until his Shakespeare shows up, Clarence Thomas interests me not at all. It’s all way too easy to understand, or completely inexplicable, nothing left in the middle.


Dr. Hilarius 04.19.14 at 4:31 am

Corey’s post isn’t at all surprising to me. A law school professor of mine attended law school with Thomas. When Thomas was nominated for the SC, my prof remarked about how Thomas might surprise people and related his black nationalist trappings during law school.

Having observed other people make seemingly wild ideological swings across their careers, I doubt that Thomas’ black nationalism had any real conviction. It was convenient and fashionable at the moment. Maybe it even got him laid. He has been willing to both disavow race as a factor in his life and invoke it when useful (recall, “legal lynching” during his confirmation hearings).

Nothing is contradictory for an opportunist.


john c. halasz 04.19.14 at 6:03 am

Isn’t Thomas also RC? IIRC RCs from Georgia can make for some strange brew.


LFC 04.19.14 at 1:58 pm

As I wrote in a slightly longer comment on Anderson’s blog, Thomas’s affinity for Malcolm X is not, at least to me, all that puzzling or surprising; it would be more puzzling, wouldn’t it?, had he been a fan at one point of M.L. King. (But this is a tentative, perhaps half-baked thought, and I stand open to correction on it.)


mrearl 04.19.14 at 7:10 pm

His appointment to the court was rank tokenism of the most cynical sort. He cannot but have appreciated that fact. Thus his views on affirmative action should not be surprising. It’s a reaction many of us with any ego might have.

What would be surprising, and inspiring, would be if he, unlike many of us, could rise above it. So far, not so good.


Dave Maier 04.21.14 at 8:26 pm

Belle tells us “two more things you did not know about Clarence Thomas:”

1. He has met Belle Waring–for one second just to shake hands.

Wow, how about that, something I envy Clarence Thomas for.

2. He is a native speaker of Gullah

Cmon Belle, everyone knows that. That’s supposed to be why he doesn’t like to speak during arguments in court.


monboddo 04.22.14 at 1:09 am

I’m no fan of the man, but friends who have clerked on the Court say he is in fact a remarkably nice man, and–what I do view as significant–apparently the only justice who actually knows the names of, and chats with, the non-lawyer, service staff at the Court


Belle Waring 04.22.14 at 12:45 pm

Dave Maier–that’s a really sweet thing to say, I’m flattered, thank you! ^_^ We should have CT meet-ups ever. Like in DC, or NYC? I go there at least once a year. Savannah or Martha’s Vineyard or Eugene, OR, or Singapore, or Senggigi Beach, Lombok, are also candidates, but I think there would be fewer potential attendees.


Kat 04.22.14 at 4:46 pm

Should be 12 things. The 12th? Clarence Thomas – with grace, dignity, and supreme confidence in the soundness of his principles – ignores the insults, denigrations, and outright racism of the liberal left who treat with respect only those black people who obey the liberal massa and toe their political line. Thomas left their plantation a long time ago, and he ain’t coming back. In other words, he’s free at last, thank God Almighty.


David (Kid Geezer). 04.23.14 at 2:21 am

#10 is, of course, purely depressing.
@Kat: no.


Dave Maier 04.23.14 at 2:15 pm

CT meetups FTW! Don’t get out Lombok way that often tho …

Or a birthday bash! Did you know you [Belle] and I have the same birthday? What are the odds?? (Wait, I know this one …).


godoggo 04.23.14 at 3:40 pm

Don’t forget leap years.


Dave Maier 04.23.14 at 4:21 pm

I can forget leap years if I want to so nyah nyah. 8-p


ezra abrams 04.24.14 at 11:52 pm

rude arrogant self centered people can be surprisingly nice, because if they like you, they will bend all the rules for you: there is something special if your dinner host speeds thru red lights to get you to the train station on time

as for Malcolm X..if you are an ambitious young harvard law grad in Chicago, is there a better way to startup the ladder then community organizer with S Alinsky ?
Doesn’t mean you won’t torture people later on…

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