February is Black History Month, a time for paying tribute to generations of African Americans who have overcome obstacles to achieve full citizenship in our society. Although some people might not want to acknowledge it, Clarence Thomas is currently the highest ranking African American government official in the United States.
Thomas is the senior associate justice on the Supreme Court, having served since 1991. His legacy is inevitably tied to allegation during his confirmation hearing that he had sexually harassed Anita Hill during their tenure together at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is an allegation that Thomas categorically denied and famously described as part of a “high tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
Thomas has been vilified by many in the intelligentsia for the entirety of his nearly 30 years on the Supreme Court. Time Magazine once appallingly referred to him as “Uncle Tom Justice,” and the late political columnist Nat Hentoff opined during the early years of his service that Thomas had “done more damage, more quickly, than any Supreme Court justice in history.”
But three decades is a long time, and it would be a mistake to underestimate Justice Thomas’s impact on American law. His most lasting influence is almost certainly going to be on civil rights law, a fact that is particularly important to note during Black History Month.
His conception of civil rights as an individual, not a group, right also explains his approach to voting rights. In Holder versus Hall, he wrote that racial groups should not “be conceived of largely as political interest groups,” that African Americans do not all think alike, and that existing case law should be overturned to eliminate claims for “proportional allocation of political power according to race.”
Of course, Thomas is best known for insisting that racial preferences are bad policy and bad law.
Thomas has strived for decades to convince a majority on the Supreme Court that racial preferences are unconstitutional.
The #MeToo movement wants Thomas impeached and removed from the Supreme Court for the allegations of what he did to Hill more than 30 years ago. Sonia Sotomayor, his liberal colleague on the Supreme Court, paints a much different picture of the highest ranking African American government official in the nation. “He knows the name of every single employee in the building,” Sotomayor told students at Vanderbilt University. “I can stand here and say I just love the man as a person. He has the same value toward human beings as I have despite our differences.”
Black History Month reminds us that every African American has a compelling life story to tell. Clarence Thomas, who rose from a dirt poor town in Georgia during his youth to the marble temple of the highest court in the land, certainly does.
Scott Douglas Gerber is a visiting professor at the Political Theory Project at Brown University and a law professor at Ohio Northern University. His books include “First Principles: The Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.”