Thomas’ Perverse Opinion on Affirmative Action

If you haven’t read Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Fisher v University of Texas, the case involving affirmative action in college admissions, you really should read it. It makes one of the most staggeringly illogical and hypocritical arguments I have ever heard from a Supreme Court justice. He actually equates the arguments for affirmative action with the arguments for slavery and segregation. You think I’m joking?

Slaveholders argued that slavery was a “positive good” that civilized blacks and elevated them in every dimension of life. See, e.g., Calhoun, Speech in the U. S. Senate, 1837, in P. Finkelman, Defending Slavery 54, 58–59(2003) (“Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained acondition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. . . . [T]he relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two [races], is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good”); Harper, Memoir on Slavery, in The Ideology of Slavery 78, 115–116 (D. Faust ed. 1981) (“Slavery, as it is said in an eloquent article published in a Southern periodical work . . . ‘has done more to elevate a degraded race in the scale of humanity; to tame the savage; to civilize the barbarous; to soften the ferocious; to enlighten the ignorant, and to spread the blessings of [C]hristianity among the heathen, than all the missionaries that philanthropy and religionhave ever sent forth’”); Hammond, The Mudsill Speech, 1858, in Defending Slavery, supra, at 80, 87 (“They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves”).

A century later, segregationists similarly asserted that segregation was not only benign, but good for black students. They argued, for example, that separate schools protected black children from racist white students and teachers. See, e.g., Brief for Appellees in Briggs 33–34 (“‘I have repeatedly seen wise and loving colored parents take infinite pains to force their little children into schoolswhere the white children, white teachers, and white parents despised and resented the dark child, made mock of it, neglected or bullied it, and literally rendered its life a living hell. Such parents want their child to “fight” this thing out,—but, dear God, at what a cost! . . . We shall get a finer, better balance of spirit; an infinitely more capable and rounded personality by putting children in schools where they are wanted, and where they are happy and inspired, than in thrusting them into hells where they are ridiculed and hated’”…

Following in these inauspicious footsteps, the University would have us believe that its discrimination is likewise benign. I think the lesson of history is clear enough: Racial discrimination is never benign. “‘[B]enign’ carries with it no independent meaning, but reflects only acceptance of the current generation’s conclusion that a politically acceptable burden, imposed on particular citizens on the basis of race, is reasonable.”…The University’s professed good intentions cannot excuse its outright racial discrimination any more than such intentions justified the now denounced arguments of slaveholders and segregationists.

This is such a surreal equivalence as to be utterly perverse. As if the fact that slaveholders claimed that slavery was good for black people automatically invalidates every argument after that point in favor of any policy on the grounds that it would help black people. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Clarence Thomas himself was the beneficiary of affirmative action in getting in to Yale Law School, which means he literally would not be in the position he is today if not for affirmative action.

There are many things to admire about Clarence Thomas, and I mean this sincerely. He has overcome more than most of us can even imagine, having been raised in abject poverty (literally with no running water in his home, in the 1950s). He didn’t even speak English until well into elementary school, he spoke Gullah. That he went to college at all is pretty incredible. But he is, in fact, a living testimony to the benefits of affirmative action (not quotas, which were outlawed long ago in college admissions). Giving a bright but highly disadvantaged young person who is willing to work their butt off to succeed over a pampered kid willing to coast by produces exactly the kind of results that Clarence Thomas embodies, someone who is able to rise far above their meager beginnings. That Thomas walked through the door opened by affirmative action and now wants to slam it behind him to prevent others from doing the same is simply loathsome to me. He should be the loudest advocate of affirmative action, not its most strident and irrational critic.

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