WASHINGTON -- In the 1960s, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart declared that he could not define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. Today, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas does not define affirmative action in the same way that a lot of other people do, but he knows when he has not benefited from it.
He reveals that view and more in a rare and surprisingly expansive interview with BusinessWeek senior writer Diane Brady, posted on the magazine's Web site.
Justice Thomas granted this rare interview because Ms. Brady was writing an article about his beloved college mentor, the Rev. John E. Brooks, former president of the College of the Holy Cross.
Father Brooks' story is instructive. Back in 1968, when American cities were on fire with riots, assassinations and antiwar demonstrations, he was the prestigious Massachusetts college's academic dean who set out to recruit African-Americans.
To him, that meant doing something more than placing a want ad in the newspapers that said, "We're here." He went out to inner-city Catholic schools (most public schools turned him away, he says) and offered scholarships. He even drove some promising kids to the Worcester, Mass., campus to check it out. One of them was Edward P. Jones, who went on to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World.
"The fact that he had driven down from Massachusetts" to Mr. Jones' home in Washington, D.C. "told me something in a very quiet way," Mr. Jones told the magazine.
That year, the number of African-Americans entering the school soared to 28 from an average of about two per class. Father Brooks promised opportunities and scholarships to the youngsters but no special breaks or programs to ease their transition. He pushed them not only to meet but to exceed the school's high academic standards.
Besides Mr. Thomas and Mr. Jones, that pioneer group also included Ted Wells, The National Law Journal's 2006 Lawyer of the Year and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's attorney. Other alumni of that group include investment banker Stanley E. Grayson and former pro football player Eddie J. Jenkins, who now chairs the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
Today, Justice Thomas is a fierce opponent of affirmative action, while Mr. Wells, a co-chairman of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Board of Directors, strongly defends it. Yet, like many of their classmates, both think the world of Father Brooks, and it is easy to see why. He did precisely what an ideal affirmative action plan is supposed to do. He wasn't satisfied with waiting for a diverse talent pool to come to him. He went out, found it and recruited it. Once the students were enrolled, he kept an eye on them as he would with any other students, but by their own accounts left them largely to find their own way and succeed without special breaks.
Yet, when Ms. Brady asked him directly, Justice Thomas was quick to deny that he benefited from affirmative action. "Oh, no," he said. "I was going to go home to Savannah," after he left a Missouri seminary, "when a nun suggested Holy Cross. That's how I wound up there," Mr. Thomas said.
"I was never recruited," he said. "I just showed up. But somebody had to recognize it was a good place to be, and it was a Franciscan nun. The others were recruited."
Fine. As I have often said, what's important in such matters is not how you got into college but how you leave. Affirmative action at its best opens doors, but it does not guarantee results. For that, you're on your own.
What concerns me more is Justice Thomas' own enlistment policies. When he and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy testified in the high court's budget hearing Thursday before the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a Democrat from New York, asked about the diversity of their clerks. Justice Thomas expressed an odd sort of pride in his clerks' uniformity. "Mine happen to be all white males," he said of his clerks. "I don't have quotas."
In other words, the sort of program Father Brooks followed to increase nonwhite enrollment in Holy Cross is precisely what Justice Thomas has no intention to do with the Supreme Court's highly competitive clerk positions. I respect his view, but I prefer Father Brooks' idea.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columnist Trudy Rubin is on vacation.