Clarence Thomas’s life is an emotional testament to the persistence of God’s grace amid the highs and lows of the American story. “I come from regular stock,” says the highest-ranking, longest-serving African-American public servant in a new documentary, “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words.” His story is at once the epitome of the best and the worst of America.
Its depiction in “Created Equal” and his 2008 autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son,” deserve a prominent place among public knowledge of the civil rights movement, the Supreme Court, black American history, and great Americans. Thomas has earned his place in his country’s history, which means he deserves focus in Black History Month curricula and similar celebrations and inquiries.
Without shying from the serious reasons he and many other unjustly treated Americans might have for cynicism about the project of “liberty and justice for all,” the associate Supreme Court justice also demonstrates how to transcend hatred with magnanimity. It’s a lesson we all can stand to learn better.
Justice Thomas has legitimate reasons to hate America. They begin in his childhood, and extend through today. At age six, he wandered alone in the streets of segregated Savannah, Georgia, while his mother worked. They lived in a black-only tenement with raw sewage stewing in the ditches near where people cooked. “Savannah was hell,” he says in the documentary. His grandparents took over raising him and sent him to Catholic schools, where Thomas received a rare excellent education for a young black boy.
After high school, Thomas enrolled in seminary with the goal of becoming a Catholic priest. The cultural racism of his all-white peers, however, ultimately ended in him quitting seminary after getting notes saying “I like Martin Luther King — dead” and hearing a seminary student rejoice when MLK was shot. That was followed by the race riots and Robert Kennedy assassination of summer 1968. Thomas plunged into anger.
“For the first time in my life, racism and race explained everything,” he says. “It became sort of a substitute religion. I shoved aside Catholicism, and it was all about race.”
He joined the black Marxist revolutionaries at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, who celebrated activists who called for shooting police. When he visited home in Georgia, Thomas’s grandfather and Vietnam vet brother were embarassed and angry about his black power activities and ideology, but he still felt justified.
After he graduated from Yale Law School, however, the only person who would hire Thomas was a Republican. Employers assumed black Yale graduates were of a lower caliber than whites because of affirmative action, and steered clear of him. “The hardest part of taking the job was, he was a Republican. And the idea of working for a Republican was repulsive at best,” Thomas says. Yet with a wife and child to support, Thomas swallowed his distaste and took the job in Missouri.
The job was as assistant attorney general. “At the time, my thinking was that all blacks were political prisoners,” Thomas says now, laughing at his younger self. “That’s sort of the sophisticated level at which I looked at the criminal justice system.” Yet through his job Thomas came into contact with so many cases and data that he had to finally acknowledge that wasn’t true. The vast majority of blacks involved in the criminal justice system were there for just reasons. “It was one of these road to Damascus experiences,” he says in the film, swallowing, with obvious pain in his eyes.
Thomas worked in corporate law next, then moved back into public law. Along the road, he became increasingly conservative in his thinking. The press eventually found out, and made him notorious.
Of course the avatar of this was Thomas’s confirmation battle for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. The documentary spends a significant section exploring that saga, incorporating hearing footage with present-day flashbacks from Thomas and his wife, Virginia. Since I was only five years old in 1991, to me the storyline eerily paralleled the Brett Kavanaugh brutalization, rather than the other way around.
I cried watching clips of what Thomas called a “high-tech lynching,” just as I cried watching Kavanaugh battle for his good name and family against similarly heinous accusations. As with Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford, Thomas accuser Anita Hill changed her story several times and could provide no corroboration for her claims. Nor had she any explanation for why she followed from job to job a man she claimed had been sexually harassing her. Polls from the time show the majority of Americans believed she was lying.
Thomas’s unjust treatment continues today, mostly at the hands of those affiliated with the political party that claims to represent antiracism. In the wake of the parallel allegations lobbed at Kavanaugh in 2018, Thomas was again dragged out into the popular press and his reputation re-assassinated.
The documentary shows a few of the slurs prominent people and publications have applied to Thomas that would be furiously lambasted as racist if applied to someone with different philosophical commitments. Apparently racism only matters to the people who control culture if it can be used as a political weapon against their opponents. It is therefore permitted to live and even fed, precisely because it is useful to its keepers, rather than rejected equally by all.
“We were told that, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be the bigot in the pickup truck, it’s gonna be the Klansmen, it’s gonna be the rural sheriff,’ and I’m not saying that there weren’t some of those who were bad,” Thomas says in “Created Equal.” “But it turned out that, through all of that, ultimately the biggest impediment was the modern-day liberal. That they were the ones who would discount all those things because they have one issue, or because they have the power to caricature you.”
Thomas’s story doesn’t end there, though, because he is not an asterisk. His monumental body of constitutional scholarship vindicates his mind, and God Almighty vindicates his soul. As a reflection of those graces, perhaps, while he has every reason to be vindictive and bitter, Clarence Thomas has chosen not to be. Instead, he is grateful, effective, and joyful.
Perhaps most of all among the sitting Supreme Court justices, Thomas’s jurisprudence shows veneration for the majestic ideas of what some racists automatically disqualify because a bunch of “white men” agreed with them. Yet the American founders’ greatest ideas (which descend from a great tumult of different-looking people) transcend lesser mental constructs like race, and make it possible for us to do so also. This is why Thomas loves them, as do all people wise enough to see past skin into soul.
Thomas’s honorable discharge of his duties regardless of the suffering they have brought doesn’t erase the sins committed against him, but it does redeem them. It transforms a stepping stone to glory into a stumbling block of shame. This is the American story. It is Thomas’s story. It can also be yours.