By Charles M. Blow
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas doesn’t often speak during oral arguments before the Supreme Court. But often what he says outside the chamber is eyebrow-raising. Such was the case Tuesday when Thomas told an audience at Palm Beach Atlantic University:
“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. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.”
“The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated.”
There is so much to unpack here that one hardly knows where to start. But let’s start here: The racial reality of blacks in the South in the 1960s was that race- and difference-consciousness was virtually inescapable, and often stifling.
It’s unclear to me whether Thomas is being amnesiac in his recollections or if he was contemporaneously oblivious. Either way, being unable to acknowledge and articulate the basic fact that race was — and remains — a concern for others is disturbing.
The second thing: is he suggesting that we essentially stay silent and suck it up? Would that be an admirable strategy for overcoming oppression? It isn’t. This would be a particularly unsettling concept coming from a sitting justice who should be able to apply proper perspective to plaintive grievance and understand broad, societal circumstances.
One thing that I will submit, however, is that the emphasis must shift from discussions of interpersonal racism — which I would argue are waning as they become more socially unacceptable — to systemic and institutional biases, which remain stubbornly infused throughout the culture.
Interpersonal incidents of racism are easy to identify and condemn, particularly as their prevalence dwindles. We do hear too much about these at the expense of discussions about the systemic and institutional biases that are harder to see — it’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem — and that rarely have individual authors. This bias is obscured by anecdote but quite visible in the data sets.
And, aside from Thomas’s swipe at liberals, I do in fact believe that he has been the target of racism, even in elite settings. But that’s the thing about racism: It’s no respecter of station. There is a tinted-glass ceiling that only a few can break through, and none without scarring.
This upper-echelon bias can be particularly frustrating and galling for people who have the right gifts, make the right choices, go to the right schools and perform well at the right jobs, as the author Ellis Cose illustrated two decades ago in his brilliant book “The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care?”
You can’t individually achieve your way out of racism. The remedy is collective. As long as racism is operational, Justice Thomas’s fate is caught up with that of his racial compatriots.
This kind of Talented-Tenth sniffing at the plight of the rest is privilege-blind. It views the condition of success as universal rather than unique, and ignores the inequities and obstacles that might prove more bedeviling or even insurmountable for those with similar gifts and good fortune, and certainly for those with less.
We must stop having these juvenile discussions of race and face down the big questions: How can we help people see a thing so vaporous? How can we help direct dialogue among individuals about things happening on a grand scale? How can we help avoid victim and guilt fatigue in addressing problems whose formation was glacial and whose undoing is likely to be so as well? And how can we encourage people to fight on two fronts at once: holding the culture responsible for allowing and even nurturing roadblock biases, while still encouraging individuals to make every effort to overcome those biases, identifying and eliminating self-destructive behaviors?
Simplistic discussions about race — both those that are history-blind and those that give insufficient weight to personal choices — do nothing to advance understanding. They obscure it.