Corey Robin: Clarence Thomas’s Counterrevolution: "What I think Thomas took away... are two ideas.
First, not only is racism a perdurable element of the American experience... but it is also a protean and often-hidden element of that experience... so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you’ll never be able to remove it. You see this belief in quiet, throwaway lines in his opinions that you can easily miss if you’re reading too fast. In 1992, in one of his early cases, Georgia v. McCollum, Thomas stated:
Conscious and unconscious prejudice persists in our society. Common sense and common experience confirms this understanding.
The point was so obvious and self-evident to Thomas it didn’t need elaboration or explanation.
In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), he wrote:
If society cannot end racial discrimination, at least it can arm minorities with the education to defend themselves from some of discrimination’s effects.
That “if” is a conditional only in the grammatical... but not in the historical sense. For Thomas thinks that society cannot in fact end discrimination. Racism is... profoundly inscribed in the white soul.... The overt bigotry of the South is merely the surface; its true depths are to be found in the North. Not among the angry white faces throwing rocks in South Boston, but in the genteel white smiles of liberal institutions like Yale Law School, which Thomas attended. In his memoir... Thomas described the difference thus:
At least southerners were up front about their bigotry; you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so the paternalistic big-city [Northern and liberal] whites who offered you a helpful hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place. Like the water moccasin, they struck without warning.
If you’re hearing a distant echo in that comment, you should. Think back to that passage in Malcolm X’s “Chickens Come Home to Roost” speech:
The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.
You’ve got the same animal imagery; the same moral emphasis on deceit and insincerity as the crucial marker of difference between liberal and conservative; the same emphasis on whiteness as the essentialist ground of vice and violence.
And here we come to the second idea that Thomas develops.... The evil of the color line lies less in the hierarchies of white privilege and the humiliations of black subordination than in the deception and deceit that racism imposes upon blacks and whites alike.... Racism is shape-shifting, often hidden; that is its poison. The antidote to racism, the moral answer to it, is race sincerity: being truthful with and to oneself, and seeking truth, in however malignant a form, in and from one’s enemies. The goal is not, and never can be, color-blindness. The goal is racial candor or race sincerity....
For black Americans, that means giving up on the idea of racial authenticity, that there’s an official way to be black: i.e., liberal, Democrat, etc... “How could a black man be truly free if he felt obliged to act in a certain way,” Thomas asks in his memoir, “and how was that any different from being forced to live under segregation?”... I think it’s a sincere statement from Thomas of the psychological and moral terms in which he understands the harm of racism.... For white Americans, race sincerity means owning up to the racism that lurks within. Particularly among white northern liberals.... So many of Thomas’s opinions about affirmative action have far less to do with any commitment to state neutrality or color-blindness... than... a belief that affirmative action is really just the sneaky face of contemporary racism. As he wrote most recently in... Fisher v. University of Texas....
The worst forms of racial discrimination in this Nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities.