Telling the sheep from the goats

The New Yorker recently ran an excerpt from an intellectual biography of Clarence Thomas. Near the top is this set of claims:

By consensus, Thomas is the most conservative member of the Court. So it’s surprising that the central theme of his jurisprudence is race. 

Why is it “surprising” that it should be so? When I read that sentence, it became obvious to me what presuppositions the author was working with: that the people who talk about race do so in order to complain about or repair the injustices inflicted by the majority on minorities. Thus to speak about “race” is implicitly to advocate for oppressed people, and to deny the category is to affirm the existing order. In other words, it is “surprising” only if all the people you know are SJWs within an affirmative-action context. That actually isn’t how the category of “race” operates in Thomas’s story, and the lesson might be, rather, that it is utterly unsurprising that a man obsessed with the mission of keeping the races separate is also a “conservative” by many other measures. Indeed, you don’t have to scratch a conservative very hard to get down to a racial ideology, whether that conservative goes around in a black or white skin, in a blue collar or a black robe, whether they natter on about hard currency or the missile gap or the graffiti on the subways.

A little cartography here. One axis for charting political positions is obviously redistribution: is the voter (or the Justice) in favor of measures that concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, or make its advantages available to the many? (Building roads and schools, preserving wilderness, and providing safe drinking water all count as forms of redistribution, as long as it’s done equably.) Another axis is that of purity/diversity: are we better off when everyone is more alike (shares the same ancestors, exercises the same capacities, has the same opinions), or is the fact that people are dissimilar a positive good? On one end, you’d have folks who think that the best population is the one most unified by race, from which the halt and the lame and the defective have been purged, and in which a uniform ideology has been instilled; on the other, you have the folks who think we should design mechanisms for reaching consensus while acknowledging that people are going to be different, are going to think differently, and sometimes need the active support of others in order to realize their fullest humanity.

With those dimensions in mind, it is obvious to me at least that a person who values purity and uniformity cannot help being a conservative, because those are goals that can never be accomplished through diversity and consensus-mongering. Such a person might invoke diversity language, but only as a stratagem on the way to claiming the power to exclude and disempower those of other types and opinions. (… Such as the absurd claim that eugenicists and misogynists must be offered a platform in our national debate on the grounds of “intellectual diversity.”)

So, Corey Robin, you tried to offer us a hook, but the wire you were bending was too soft and straightened out, letting the worm slide free.

A couple of notes on the article will confirm how Justice Thomas’s racial thinking only confirms the theme of an assault on liberal, process-oriented, democratic norms of governance.

“I don’t see how the civil-rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own,” [Thomas] said. “Where does he say black people should go begging the Labor Department for jobs? He was hell on integrationists. Where does he say you should sacrifice your institutions to be next to white people?” […]

“I marched. I protested. I asked the government to help black people,” Thomas told the Washington Post, in 1980. “I did all those things. But it hasn’t worked.”

Funny thing here. “The government” actually belongs to black people, as much as to any citizen. Okay, I know that the practice falls far short of the theory, that majority-black districts suffer from maldistribution and that the application of the laws increasingly (and with Thomas’s help) disenfranchises black people — but that is exactly where change is needed, and it doesn’t help to tell any group of disfavored citizens that “the government” is a big Them over there, to be approached in a posture of “begging”; the government is Us, damn it, and you have a perfect right to demand that it treat you fairly. So the setup of the purported experiment in liberalism (“I did all those things. But it hasn’t worked”) is deceptive.

In the 1995 case Missouri v. Jenkins, the Court’s conservative majority held that federal courts could not force Missouri to adopt policies designed to entice suburban white students to predominantly black urban schools. Thomas joined the majority. In the Court’s private deliberations about the case, he argued […] “I am the only one at this table who attended a segregated school. And the problem with segregation was not that we didn’t have white people in our class. The problem was that we didn’t have equal facilities. We didn’t have heating, we didn’t have books, and we had rickety chairs. . . .” 

I’ll grant you the premise, Mr. Justice Thomas. I do think that if students in every school in this country had enjoyed equal provision of books, heating, chairs, well-trained teachers, and other necessities, from (let us say) the day Plessy v. Ferguson permitted the hypocritical expression “separate but equal” to escape the lips of the Justices of the Supreme Court, then, perhaps, segregation would have been a non-issue. But it didn’t happen that way. The reason for keeping black kids (and Mexican kids, and Native American kids, and so forth) in separate schools was to spare the money required to educate them as they deserved, and instead spend it on the white kids in suburban schools who probably didn’t need the investment since they were already getting it from so many other channels. If we had dealt with this issue as the redistributionist would recommend, justice would have been served without any need to use race as the marker (always an imperfect and opprobrious marker) for deficiency.

As a consequence of maldistribution, students like Clarence Thomas were not as well prepared for advanced work in élite law schools as other students who had gone to prep schools and Ivy League colleges. How to respond? They could say, “All right, while you guys were writing your high school themes on the Schleswig-Holstein crisis or the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, half of the kids in my class couldn’t spell ‘Mississippi,’ and that’s nothing to do with our inherent abilities. If you country-clubbers had to spend a week under the conditions we endured in our school, conditions that partly underlie the cushy conditions you enjoyed, you would either lose your minds or become diehard communists. So lay off the entitled, patronizing attitudes! However we got here, we’re not going away.” In Thomas’s case, however, the situation of having to be compared with more fortunate others spurred resentment, a sentiment in which I detect a certain narcissistic wounding: he must be the absolute source of his own success, he cannot owe any of it to circumstances or the compromising generosity of liberalism, he would rather, in his fantasy, fight it out with the Klan than accept a handshake from Kingman Brewster.

The most remarkable element of Thomas’s affirmative-action jurisprudence, and what makes it unlike that of any other Justice on the Supreme Court, is how much attention he devotes to whites, not as victims but as perpetrators, the lead actors in a racial drama of their own imagination. Put simply, Thomas believes that affirmative action is a white program for white people. […] Diversity, as a value, is [in Thomas’s belief] how white élites signal to other élites their sophistication, fashion, and taste. It marks black people as victims and whites as saviors. […]

Looking back on his education, in an all-black environment, Thomas has admitted to wanting to “turn back the clock” to a time “when we had our own schools.” Much of his jurisprudence is devoted to undoing the “grand experiment” of which he believes himself to be a victim. As he made clear in 1986, “I have been the guinea pig for many social experiments on social minorities. To all who would continue these experiments, I say please ‘no more.’ ”

The fantasy of the self-made man has been denounced many times before. “I got here entirely on my own power! I don’t owe anything to anybody! Nobody can tell me what to do!” It is the credo of the Sovereign Citizen and the AR-15 owner, and of course it’s built on a lie. We all depend on each other. We all benefit from what others have made and done. Thrown completely on our own resources, we would dry up like a cicada on the sidewalk. People without a lot of material cushioning in their lives are particularly conscious of this texture of interdependence. And for a few, it must be intolerable.

Thomas constantly refers to “race,” as if it could be separated from material conditions like cracked windows, defunct boilers and thirty-year-old textbooks with missing pages. Race and race alone, to him, accounts for the poor performance of some minority students in élite educational establishments, and the secret passwords to the allocation of racial identities are entirely in the hands of white folks. This way of thinking presses towards purity in its exclusion of material factors and its refusal of shared agency. For it, the status of victim is preferable to the status of assisted agent. “Better to reign in hell than participate in representative government in Heaven,” if I may put a liberal-democratic spin on Milton’s Satan.

So — here you may review Justice Thomas’s thirty years of judicial decisions, as well as his extra-Court activities — all black people, all poor people, in this country are to suffer in demonstrable and quantifiable ways in order to placate the inferiority complex of one man. “Surprisingly” both a conservative and a race man? Hell no.

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