The Freest Black Man in America – Clarence Thomas by Shelby Steele

October 6th, 2007 § 5 comments

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To be born into a minority group is, among other things, to be born into a collective experience of insecurity. Put differently, it is to be born into a group of nervous people. If you are born black in America, as has been my own fate, then you are born into a particularly intense insecurity. Your people have known almost nothing but insecurity and impotence for centuries — this as opposed to the majority culture’s experience of itself as heroic and world-beating; ingenious in peace, dominant in war.

One thing this means for minorities is that their group identity will often be the enemy of their individuality. In its insecurity, the group is naturally threatened by the impulse in some of its members to think for themselves. Individuals like this seem to put the group at risk. What will we do if the majority culture thinks you speak for us? Your indulgence in individuality jeopardizes the carefully constructed mask we present to the powerful majority. Your individuality collaborates with them. So knock it off. Get in line, or we will shun you to the point of extinction.

Moreover, only blacks who wear the group’s mask can pronounce on the innocence of whites. Thus Don Imus, longing for absolution, sought an audience with Al Sharpton. Ward Connerly or Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice — individuals all — would never do. People who veer from the group mask — who evolve by their own lights — start to lose their moral authority as blacks. This is why President Bush got no credit for having two black secretaries of state. Naively he selected two black individuals.

Still, the black individual is now emerging as something of a new archetype in American life — not someone who disowns his group but someone who rejects it as a master. Today there is no more quintessential embodiment of this new archetype than Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. And now — in his new memoir, My Grandfather’s Son — Justice Thomas offers up the rich details of his remarkable and often heroic struggle to become a man who simply thinks for himself. He says, “The question was how much courage I could muster up to express my individuality. What I wanted was for everyone — the government, the racists, the activists, the students, even Daddy — to leave me alone so that I could finally start thinking for myself.”

This memoir is really two books in one. The first chronicles his struggle to become his own man; the second describes the persecution this achievement elicits. A line he quotes from Ralph Ellison points to the cause-and-effect connection between these two books: “I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest.”

Because this first book is a story of overcoming it calls to mind those great inspiring autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Richard Wright. But Thomas’s overcoming is a more existential struggle than the struggles of these other men. Like them he contends with racism, especially in his early life, but unlike them he wants something more than just a victory over racism. There are other forces — benign and malign — that threaten to take him over, and he struggles mightily to ward them off.

There was the radical black-power politics he encountered in college. There were the dreams that his powerful and controlling grandfather had for him (to be the first black priest in Savannah). There was the stigma that affirmative action left on his achievements at Yale Law School and the relentless paternalism of post-’60s liberalism that would have allowed him to lower his standards. And there was even the allure of money and security — “golden handcuffs” — when he worked briefly as a corporate lawyer.

So My Grandfather’s Son is a more radical memoir than its forebears, because it envisions an almost heroic individualism — an individualism that is quite beyond the old framework of race. Thomas mentions in passing that he listens to country music. “Merely because I was black, it seemed, I was supposed to listen to Hugh Masekela instead of Carole King, just as I was expected to be a radical, not a conservative.” This book stands for what might be called a non-binding racial identity — an open-minded black identity that informs but never constrains. This is what Thomas demands for himself and holds out for other blacks — this in an age of identity politics when the black identity is so closed-minded and narrowly defined that it requires a reflexive devotion to the Democratic party.

The racial thinking that undergirds My Grandfather’s Son makes it an original addition to those great black autobiographies of the past. It updates the black American experience by presuming freedom and opportunity more than racism. And, in the end, it is a lesson on how to live in freedom — a lesson that begins with a description of poverty on a par with Richard Wright’s portrait of poverty in Black Boy.

However, Thomas first describes his very earliest years in Pin Point, Ga., as something of an idyll. The reader is made to understand that when poverty is rural and close to the ground — close to land and water — it can have a certain bountifulness and peace. But when Thomas is six, he and his younger brother are taken to Savannah to live in a broken-down tenement building with their overwhelmed young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. Here, all of a sudden, is rank urban poverty — despair, hunger, and abandonment. Thomas describes his hunger as a second-grader: “Never before had I known the nagging, chronic hunger that plagued me in Savannah. Hunger without the prospect of eating and cold without the prospect of warmth — that’s how I remember the winter of 1955.” The nadir of this period in his life comes when he stumbles while carrying a chamber pot down stairs — there are no inside bathrooms — and finds himself drenched by its contents.

Thomas and his younger brother are saved from this Dickensian circumstance by the man whom Thomas describes simply as “the greatest man I have ever known” — their grandfather, Myers Anderson, who takes them in and raises them into adulthood. “Daddy,” as they come to call him, is an extraordinary man whose force of character animates this entire memoir and — as its title makes clear — accounts for the man that Clarence Thomas is today. Daddy — a man given to unceasing hard work who owns his own fuel-oil business — immediately subjects the two boys to a regime of sacrifice (no school sports, very little TV), self-development, and hard work that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Two boys who had seemed destined for lives of self-destruction and crime were transformed by a grandfather who showed his love through discipline.

Daddy’s answer to the poverty and desolation of black Savannah is the unrelenting application of individual will. His was the classic American ethic of faith in God, delayed gratification, self-reliance, and individual initiative. And here we see the source of Justice Thomas’s inbred conservatism. Even in college, though lending an ear to black radicalism, he rooms by himself in his senior year so that he can rise at three in the morning to study without disturbing a roommate. (He achieves almost every academic honor Holy Cross has to offer.) At Yale Law School he immediately takes the most difficult courses available in order to prove to himself that he is, in fact, competitive with his privileged white classmates.

If there is a romance in Clarence Thomas’s life it is the thrill of starting at the bottom — a faith that makes every step forward a victory. This is the poor man’s great excitement. Thus he is heartbroken when it becomes clear that Yale is practicing affirmative action. Outraged, he considers dropping out. Only the realization that he and his wife have a baby on the way keeps him at Yale. Yet, from then on he feels stigmatized by Yale’s use of racial preferences. He also feels robbed of credit for his achievements there. And his bitterness only deepens when he realizes that the wider world also sees black graduates differently: Employers suspect that racial preferences, rather than talent, had won them the Yale imprimatur.

And here Thomas’s life begins to touch on the absurd. He is a young man raised to fight the dehumanization of segregation by identifying with the all-American ethic of self-reliance. His grandfather instinctively understood that the deepest challenge of black life was to overcome dependency with self-reliance. Segregation and slavery were dependency. Freedom and equality were self-reliance. And then Yale University — out of the most pernicious self-absorption — takes a young man schooled in this ethic and plunges him back into dependency. Yale happily taints Clarence Thomas’s achievements and deflates his self-esteem in its rush to appear innocent of racism. In the end, Yale disallows black self-reliance and reinforces the same black dependency that segregation imposed.

This, then, is the existential source of Thomas’s famous anger. Every achievement he earns is made to stink of white paternalism. His grandfather had a better chance to be his own man than he does.

And then there is today’s callow and sycophantic black leadership that actually sells black dependency as a white opportunity for moral deliverance. In the very bowels of slavery there was never a more egregious form of Uncle Tomism than this determination, even in the midst of freedom, to portray one’s own people as nearly helpless victims.

So, understandably, as Thomas’s career advances, the two great themes of his life — will and individuality — begin to get him in trouble. The story of the persecution that haunts his entire career in Washington makes up the second book within this memoir. By the time Thomas becomes chairman of the EEOC in the Reagan administration, he has become openly conservative. The tale of his outing as a conservative in the Washington Post by journalist Juan Williams describes that moment when his carefully evolved individuality — his habit of thinking for himself — first clashes with the insecurity of his group. After this he never really knows peace again.

Clarence Thomas undergoes five confirmation hearings in ten years. And these hearings turn out to be the perfect platforms for the broader clash between a collective black insecurity and the willful individuality of this single black man. The civil-rights establishment — the very voice of black insecurity — despises him from the beginning. He inspires a kind of hysteria in them, and they come after him with a ferocity they would likely never muster for a white man. There simply could be no greater threat to civil-rights organizations than the themes that most animate Thomas’s life: individuality and will. This establishment sees individual will as a futility in a racist society, and thinks of individuality as selfishness at best and group betrayal at worst.

But the civil-rights establishment does not account for what happened in Thomas’s final confirmation hearing. Here persecution turned into crucifixion. Thomas himself says that abortion was the underlying issue that turned this hearing into a “high-tech lynching.” This makes sense. For all his trouble with the civil-rights organizations, it is hard to imagine that they would display this level of moral and human blindness toward a black man. It is also hard to imagine — given the stereotypes surrounding black sexuality — that they would trot out a black woman to make sexual charges against a black man before the entire nation. If the civil-rights establishment was guilty of anything in this debacle, it was that they had made Thomas vulnerable by signaling to the world that he was an Uncle Tom. This made him fair game for liberals and feminists to attack with impunity. Here was a black man who could be openly sacrificed without repercussions — in an era of politically correct reverence for blacks generally.

Thomas convincingly denies all of Anita Hill’s charges in this memoir. He also makes clear what her motives might be — his failure to promote her at one point, her ongoing career frustration, her unrequited fascination with him. He traces the “Long Dong Silver” reference back to an EEOC sexual-harassment case that Anita Hill used in her own research on sexual harassment.

But, in the end, Thomas was made to suffer this ignominious ordeal because of his lifelong struggle to become his own man, like his grandfather before him. He comes from a group that is — at least in its leadership — too insecure at the moment to countenance this degree of individuality and personal responsibility. And so he lost the protection of his group in a multiracial society and, thus, became vulnerable to other groups. (He became a poor black man nailed to the cross by wealthy white women.) This is how he paid for the individuality that he had nurtured in himself all his life. And, like much else in his life, it was a hard-earned individuality. I have often said that Clarence Thomas is the freest black man in America. He is clearly the first black American of his generation to become — openly and irrefutably — an individual. He is now an archetype that will inspire others. I can think of no greater achievement.

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§ 5 Responses to The Freest Black Man in America – Clarence Thomas by Shelby Steele"

  • [...] No really? Clarence Thomas was a black man who, just like Cain, committed perhaps the two worst crimes in the liberal penal code: he succeeded on his own terms (rising to become a Supreme Court judge) and he voted Republican. Thomas is an extraordinary individual, a true black hero in the manner of Thomas Sowell. If you want to know why, a good place to start is this essay by Shelby Steele – The Freest Black Man in America. [...]

  • pesadia says:

    This sounds like my kind of book.
    I will read it and hopefully learn something from it that I can use and pass on to others.
    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

  • tomllewis says:

    Steele is an excellent and insightful writer.

  • Gabriel Thy says:

    A fascinating article. With this entry, I am prone to think that Mr. Steele has written probably the most insightful essay on the motives and modus operandi of the African American Left written to date. Thank you, sir.

  • Very strong, interesting and good points being made.

    My mother has always stated, be prepared for the bed that you make because you will have to sleep in it!
    If Thomas has learned the lessons well from his grandfather, surely he would have known that his grandfathers’ success was at a great cost across the board and surely he is not mentioning that his grandfather put down a platform for him to stand on, to grow, to be strong, to be independent, to work hard to give back in one form or another. I will clearly read this book and not make a judgment…for that actually only reflects one’s own securities or insecurities. what I do like about this article and what I hope to experience in Thomas’s book is it actually will help to bridge the divide between many of economic cultures, black and white, haters and lovers! And those who believe in the book or not!

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