Disquiet on the Thomas Nomination: Shared Anxieties Whose Bootstraps?


New York. Long before President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, or affirmative action became a racial buzz word, there were blacks who, overlooking the sacrifices of those who had dedicated their lives to the civil rights struggle that benefited them, made a point of declaring that they owed their professional success to no one but themselves. Their watchword was that they made it on their own.

Indeed, even during slavery, a few blacks did manage to achieve relative success. But only the die-hard racist Southerner or the totally blind black has ever denied that there was a system of oppression which deprived most blacks of opportunities for racial equality.

Given that obvious fact, it was fairly easy to overlook the protestations of those paragons of bootstrap conservatism -- except for a few like Judge Thomas, who were paraded as exemplary symbols of individual and self-help virtues by those who were determined to preserve the status quo, or, as in the present period, to destroy recently won civil-rights gains.

Mr. Bush's attempt to reward Mr. Thomas for his self-serving attacks on government programs and policies for which many people paid the ultimate price -- their lives -- during the long and painful civil rights struggle is therefore one of the most insidious actions any president could take. By his words and deeds, a president makes national policy, and Mr. Bush has made it clear that racial politics is the rule of the land.

For much of this century, blacks came to regard the federal judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court, as the bulwark of constitutional justice. The executive branch, notably from the Roosevelt to the Johnson administrations, with considerable prodding from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights organizations, also strove to uphold and protect those rights. Only after considerable effort did the Congress join those two other branches of government in enacting comprehensive laws to protect the constitutional rights minorities and other deprived citizens.

Mr. Thomas, however, rose to national prominence by his unstinting efforts to disparage the benefits of that struggle. He has, at it were, trampled on the graves of civil rights giants like W. E .B. Du Bois, Roy Wilkins and Clarence Mitchell Jr. of the NAACP, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with his brand of self-help individualism. Mr. Thomas has displayed a callous ignorance of the nature of the discrimination that still condemns so many of his fellow blacks to not just second-class citizenship, but also to what is now commonly called the underclass.

No single attack by him, however, seemed more incomprehensible than his argument that the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the Supreme Court overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine, was a misguided application of sentiment over reason. His position is that: "Brown was a missed opportunity, as all its progeny, whether they involve busing, affirmative action, or redistricting. The task of those involved in securing the freedom of all Americans is to turn policy toward reason rather than sensitivity, toward freedom rather than dependence -- in other words, toward the spirit of the Founding [of the nation]."

Ironically, Mr. Mitchell had also said that one difference between the legal and political strategies of the NAACP and the direct-action strategies of the civil rights groups in the South during the 1960s was that of reason versus emotionalism.

Except for a few like Mr. Thomas, therefore, blacks have always regarded the Brown decision as the "Magna Carta" of civil rights, as Mr. Wilkins heralded it in 1954. That decision was the turning point of the struggle for racial equality and ensured the success of the civil-rights revolution.

By nominating Mr. Thomas to succeed Justice Thurgood Marshall, who developed the strategy of sociological jurisprudence that led to the Brown victory, President Bush has therefore shown his determination to continue the leadership of his predecessor Ronald Reagan in destroying the foundations of civil-rights progress. Shortly before Justice Marshall announced his retirement, the Supreme Court ensured the success of the Reagan-Bush anti-civil-rights policies by returning the nation to the "separate but equal" doctrine when it reversed itself on two recent rulings in Payne v. Tennessee, in which it upheld the use of "victim impact" evidence during the penality phase of a capital trial.

Like Plessy v. Ferguson, the court 95 years later in Payne established a dual basis for citizenship based on power, which, as Justice Marshall said in his dissent, "sends a clear signal that essentially all decisions implementing the personal liberties protected by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment are open to re-examination."

Mr. Thomas, in what seems to be a turn-around, now acknowledges that he benefited from the civil-rights movement and Justice Marshall. Nevertheless, he has an obligation to the nation to expand on his civil-rights views, especially on such turning-point decisions as Brown and Payne.

Denton Watson is author of "Lion In The Lobby: Clarence Mitchell Jr.'s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws."

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