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. . . Get Over It : Try to change his mind, sure, but stop vilifying the justice for adhering to his view through a 'colorless prism.'

November 09, 1994|JAMES WRIGHT | James Wright is the Capitol Hill correspondent for the Washington Afro-American newspaper. and

When I was invited, along with 30 others, to a private meeting with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, I did not hesitate to say yes. I had been offered the opportunity to talk with a man whose opinions will affect the lives of generations of Americans. Thomas has been controversial since he was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bush in 1991. Few Americans don't know about his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when he endured subtle insults from such liberals as Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and answered asinine questions about his relationship with Anita Hill.

Despite the protests of black leaders, many blacks supported Thomas, feeling he would change with a lifetime job and a chance to truly express himself as a black man, without fear of retribution. But Thomas' tenure has been a disappointment. He has consistently toed the conservative line on voting rights, affirmative action and capital punishment. A strict constructionist, he has followed Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia in interpreting the Constitution by the letter rather than by the spirit.

I am saddened by the possibility that Thomas may not be in the tradition of such men as the late Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice Harry Blackmun or even his colleague on the bench, Justice David Souter, all of whom have shown that they will rule on progressive principles, regardless of who appointed them or of their individual backgrounds.

But Thomas' rulings, writings and speeches have led many to question whether he feels any responsibility to help those who have been oppressed by our country's legacy of racism, sexism and classism. Or whether he has forgotten that he is black. These were the questions that I wanted to ask Thomas.

When he walked into the Supreme Court conference room, Thomas seemed genuinely glad to see us. He walked around the room and quietly introduced himself. He gave us a brief introduction to the court, talking about its apolitical nature and polite manner of conduct. Justices, he told us, never raise their voices with one another, even when they sharply disagree. And, he said, the justices rarely interact because of their overwhelming workload; their only regular meetings are for 15-minute lunches every two weeks.

Then it was time for questions. "Justice Thomas," I asked, "how do you respond to those who say that you are an Uncle Tom and a sellout to whites?" He glared at me. "I don't pay attention to that nonsense," he said. "Why is it that when blacks become successful, they cease to become black? If a white person becomes successful, does he stop being white? One of the problems of black people is that we do not allow differing views among our people."

Radio talk show host Ernest White asked Thomas whether he understands that his decisions affect the lives of black people. Thomas replied that he views his job through a colorless prism. He cited Justice John Harlan's dissent in the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, which legalized segregation, which called the Constitution "colorblind."

One bold questioner wanted to know if and when Thomas would step down. His reply was pointed: "I am going to be here for the next 40 years. For those who don't like it, get over it." He said his grandfather was his primary role model, and Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass were the thinkers who influenced him most. He bemoaned the fact that blacks do not openly debate the issues of the day in barbershops, over checkerboards or at Sunday evening dinners, as was the case 30 years ago.

Before I met Thomas, I had the impression that he was bitter, mean-spirited and hardheaded. I left the meeting in awe of the man, charmed by his good humor and willingness to listen to our concerns. While it does not appear that our appeals will cause him to reconsider his conservative philosophy, most people were satisfied that he is open to other ideas. I feel that he recognizes his obligation as a role model, but views life and the judiciary differently than most blacks do. It would seem that he is open to persuasion on any matter, as long as it is communicated through professional channels, such as letters or newspaper columns. It seems clear that name-calling and insults will only encourage his view that honest dialogue is not possible in the black community.

But more important, even though I don't like his judicial philosophy, I like Thomas as a person. People who disagree with Thomas should listen to what he is saying and not dismiss him as a "sellout." They should continue an honest debate and try to persuade him that a kinder, gentler interpretation of the Constitution is in the best interest of all Americans, regardless or race, sex or religion.

It's time for those of us who disagree with Thomas to "get over it" and move on.

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