Justice Thomas Is Right About America’s Obsession With Race

It’s become a compulsion to use the label for any political opponents—and it’s destroying our cohesiveness as a society. Is no one proud of the progress we’ve made?

Alex Wong/Getty

Are we obsessed with race and racism in our society? Before you answer the question, consider how issues of race are brought up in the media and discussed around the proverbial water cooler. Do we discuss the remarkable progress we’ve made as a country since the dark days of segregation and Jim Crow?

Do we consider how blacks lived in the South in the not too distant past—like my grandparents, who ran the risk of being lynched for looking at someone white? That’s given way to interracial marriage no longer being a taboo. The Supreme Court didn’t repeal the statute banning interracial marriage in Virginia until 1967.

Unfortunately, very little of the dialogue involving race in America today is positive, uplifting, or inspirational. Instead, there is a compulsion by many on the left to brand their political opponents as being racist. Two specific events occurred in the past week that have me firmly convinced that there is an obsession with race in America today that is destructive to our societal cohesiveness.

First, consider the pivotal vote held by autoworkers in Chattanooga, Tenn., last Friday in which the majority ruled and decided not to join the United Auto Workers union. Perhaps these workers did not want their dues siphoned off for political activity. Perhaps they were motivated by the union influence in Detroit, which ultimately led to the town seeking bankruptcy protection. Whatever the reason behind their decision, the employees ultimately voted 712-626 against joining the UAW. Case closed? Hardly.

The idea that racism was a motivation behind the decision not to unionize by the workers in the Volkswagen plant was too rich for one MSNBC analyst not to capitalize upon. In reflecting upon the vote not to unionize, Timothy Noah offered the following insightful commentary:

“The opposition, I gather, portrayed this as a kind of Northern invasion, a re-fighting of the Civil War. Apparently there are not a lot of black employees in this particular plant, and so that kind of—waving the Confederate flag—was an effective strategy.”

The notion that a decision not to unionize is equated with a Northern invasion and re-fighting of the Civil War would be laughable except that Noah is paid by MSNBC to offer political analysis. Without facts, interviews with plant employees, or evidence, the wide net of racism is cast to describe a decision that I suspect was motivated by economics, not skin color. I would point out to Noah that people like my grandfather moved north to work at General Motors because he was not able to get a job—due to real racism—in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era.

Next, consider the liberal uproar over comments made by Justice Clarence Thomas last week before a group of college students in Florida. Justice Thomas, America’s second black jurist on the Supreme Court offered the following observation:

“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, Ga., to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. 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.”

Note here that Thomas is speaking for himself based on his own observations of attending school in Savannah during the segregated South. During the heart of the Jim Crow era, Thomas did not encounter the issue of race as the first black student to attend a white school in his hometown. No matter—Thomas was accused of being out of touch for suggesting that America is too sensitive on matters of race, a notion my colleague Jamelle Bouie discussed here last week.

While I didn’t grow up in the 1960s, hardly a day goes by in which race doesn’t come up in our political discussions. While those on the left proclaim their tolerance and support for blacks, the words of some in their ranks belie a hatred toward black conservatives unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Justice Thomas touched on this point in his Florida speech last week when he noted:

The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated… The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Ga.

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From firsthand experience, I know exactly what Justice Thomas is describing. There is hardly a day that goes by when vile and racist comments don’t fill my inbox—usually at the hands of people who tell me how racist Republicans are or how I’ve “sold out” for being a black conservative. Consider the following comment left on The Daily Beast site following my article discussing the irony of the North Carolina NAACP asking marchers protesting against voter-ID laws to bring along an ID to the rally:

I have never been compelled to call someone an Uncle Tom, but my goodness, if this article doesn’t fit the bill, I don’t know what does. Honestly, I don’t know why this was even published in the Daily Beast, a news source I often respect. Shame on them for even giving this guy the time of day.

I find it sad during the era in which America celebrates our first black president that discussions regarding matters of race are often cause for acrimony rather than constructive engagement. Calling someone racist or accusing him or her of racism is a mechanism to stifle rather than encourage debate.

Rather than obsess over matters of race, let’s acknowledge the progress we have made as a country that instituted slavery to one in which our 44th president is black. There is much to be proud of yet much more work to do for America to become truly color-blind. By working together to have an honest dialogue on race rather than polarizing the discussion by ascribing racist motives to one’s political opponents, we will calm the waters the roil our political discourse today.