In his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, Clarence Thomas raged at the racism and violence of the Jim Crow South: “The Ku Klux Klan held a convention [in Savannah] in 1960 and 250 white-robed members paraded down the city’s main street one Saturday afternoon,” he wrote. “No matter how curious you might be about the way white people lived, you didn’t go where you didn’t belong. That was a recipe for jail, or worse.”
Like many men of his generation, racism stands as a formative experience for the young Thomas. In one passage, he writes that his grandfather—and others—must be “avenged” for how they were treated by whites.
But this was in 2007. These days, seven years after his book was published, Thomas is a bit more sanguine about his early life. Now, as Chris Moody reports for Yahoo News, he laments the extent to which the America today is race conscious. Like the Duck Dynasty patriarch, Thomas thinks racial difference was less salient in the 1960s than it is now:
“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,” Thomas said during a chapel service hosted by the non-denominational Christian university. “Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive.
I would be fascinated to know how Thomas squares this statement with the circle of his memoir, since—even if you buy the idea that Americans are too sensitive about race—it’s hard to see how race mattered less at a time when lives were governed by their racial background. And as the first black student at a white school in Savannah, it’s impossible to believe that his race wasn’t remarked on or mentioned.
To be fair, it’s not a surprise to hear this kind of rhetoric from Thomas. The second African American to serve on the Supreme Court, Thomas has long challenged the idea that race is a critical variable in today’s America. And as a member of the most powerful judicial body in the country, his views matter. To wit, in Shelby v. Holder, he voted to gut a key section of the Voting Rights Act, and in Fisher v. Texas, he denounced affirmative action in college admissions, and attacked its supporters as latter-day slave owners and segregationists.
My hunch is that this recollection might have more to do with Thomas’ ultra-conservative ideology than it does with the actual conditions of Savannah in the 1960s, especially given what he wrote in his autobiography. And indeed, while I have no doubt—as he says—that he has faced racism from liberal elites, I also wouldn’t be surprised if this weren’t lingering resentment over his controversial confirmation hearing.
One last point. Let’s say that Americans are more sensitive about race (and gender, and sexuality) than they were in the 1960s. This is a good thing. If blacks in Jim Crow Georgia were willing to answer to “boy” and shrug at “nigger,” it’s because they risked danger with any other reaction.
But that’s changed. We’ve advanced. And now blacks, as well as other minorities and women, feel entitled to public respect in a way that wasn’t true in the 1960s. In turn, there’s a public recognition that we should be sensitive to the concerns of these groups. This isn’t a setback—it’s progress.