"Today's Uncle Tom doesn't wear a handkerchief
on his head. This modern, twentieth-century Uncle Thomas now
often wears a
top hat. He's usually well-dressed and well-educated. He's often
the personification of culture and refinement. The twentieth-century
Uncle Thomas sometimes speaks with a Yale or Harvard accent.
Sometimes he is known as Professor, Doctor, Judge, and Reverend,
even Right Reverend Doctor. This twentieth-century Uncle Thomas
is a professional Negro...by that I mean his profession is being
a Negro for the white man."
- Malcolm X, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," 1964
A Few Thoughts
Recently, in a watershed decision, Parents Involved In Community
Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, the conservative majority
of the Supreme Court outlawed voluntary racial integration plans
in public schools. A number of school districts around the country
initiated the policies to desegregate and achieve diversity in
public schools, in an effort to offset racially divided housing
patterns. The Court essentially said that desegregation is discriminatory,
and compared white students who don't get the school of their
choice to black students who lived under Jim Crow segregation
in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case.
The ruling is a resounding victory for the
White Citizens' Council, and the racist governors who once
blocked the schoolhouse door.
The spirit of Jim Crow lives on in the hearts and minds of this
Supreme Court's regressive, segregationist majority, over 50
years after Brown. "Diversity is illegal" is the new
standard, it would seem, and we must do everything in our power
to resist this.
"This is a decision that the court and the nation will
come to regret," said Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
Meanwhile, siding with the majority, Justice
Clarence Thomas concluded that school districts have no interest
segregation: "But without a history of state-enforced racial
separation, a school district has no affirmative legal obligation
to take race-based remedial measures to eliminate segregation
and its vestiges…. As these programs demonstrate, every
time the government uses racial criteria to 'bring the races
together,'… someone gets excluded, and the person excluded
suffers an injury solely because of his or her race…. Simply
putting students together under the same roof does not necessarily
mean that the students will learn together or even interact.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether increased interracial contact
improves racial attitudes and relations…. Some studies
have even found that a deterioration in racial attitudes seems
to result from racial mixing in schools."
Did he say "racial mixing"?
In light of this decision, I decided to blow the dust off a
letter that I wrote to Justice Thomas back in 1995, and put it
to the test. It reflected my concern over a number of troubling
court decisions regarding affirmative action and voting rights,
particularly the striking down of a majority-Black congressional
district that was represented by then-Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney
Twelve years later, not much has changed,
Clarence Thomas has not changed, and the Supreme Court has
emerged once again as
a disaster for those who care about civil rights, and one of
the greatest impediments to democracy in America. This is the
revival of the Dred Scott court, the Plessy court, the kind of
extremist court that Bush promised he would give us. While Bush
tells us to fear an "Axis of Evil," the greatest threat
to America comes from within, from our government—the executive
branch and the Supreme Court. The problems we are facing are
not going away, they just get worse, and Thomas has a decisive
role in that process.
Yet his supporters once assured us that
in time, Thomas would evolve and make us proud. After all,
they posited, he is African
American and has experienced racism, he feels our pain. Well,
his tenure on the Supreme Court has been over a decade and a
half of disappointment, daunting mediocrity and misplaced priorities.
Since joining the Court, he has presided over the wedding of
radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who once told an African-American
caller to "take that bone out of your nose," has called
abortion rights activists "feminazis", referred to
the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as "blow[ing]
some steam off," and declared that "what's good for
Al Qaeda is good for the Democratic Party."
Thomas says that he selects only "the cream of the crop" when
hiring law clerks: "I look for the math and the sciences,
real classes, none of that Afro-American study stuff. If they'd
taken that stuff as an undergraduate, I don't want them." Perhaps
it should not be a surprise that all four of his law clerks are
white males. A justice on the nation's highest court, he fails
to take advantage of a golden opportunity to do some good, in
the time-honored tradition of leaving a place better than you
found it. Sadly, he continues to desecrate the memory of Thurgood
Marshall. The late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham was right when
he said "I have often pondered how it is that Justice Thomas,
an African American, could be so insensitive to the plight of
the powerless. Why is he no different, or probably worse, than
many of the most conservative Supreme Court justices of this
century? I can only think of one Supreme Court justice during
this century who was worse than Justice Clarence Thomas: James
McReynolds, a white supremacist who referred to blacks as 'niggers.'"
Letter to Clarence Thomas
Dear Justice Thomas:
The purpose of this letter is to discuss with you the changes
that are taking place in this nation, and the ways in which these
changes will harm black people. More specifically, I would like
to respond to your recent court decisions on affirmative action
and electoral redistricting. Please do not interpret my words
as antagonistic or of ill will, as I am speaking with a sense
of honesty and truth. I believe that you need to hear what I
have to say. You need to hear what many African-Americans are
saying as they see the ground collapsing under their feet. Any
good student of history knows what is happening in this country,
and what will happen in the future if present trends continue.
As a young African-American, I am proud of my achievements.
I am a Harvard graduate, a former Westinghouse semi-finalist,
and a former exchange student to Japan. Although I was diligent
and capable, I know that I do not owe my accomplishments to myself.
I was not granted access to opportunities because I am special
or superior. I went to Harvard because that road had been paved
with the blood of those courageous people who died for my opportunity
to attend Harvard. Certainly, I was as qualified as my white
classmates (and more qualified than those who were admitted because
their grandfather is a wealthy Harvard alumnus). Qualified people
of African descent always existed in this country, but were denied
opportunity because of race. (Even Alexander Hamilton was denied
admission to Princeton because his mother was a mulatto.) Significant
numbers of blacks and other groups began to attend predominantly
white institutions only after efforts were made to recruit and
admit them. These efforts were affirmative action. Why should
members of one group have all of the admissions spots, all of
the jobs, all of the federal contracts and all of the congressional
In many ways, history is repeating itself. One hundred years
ago, blacks had made substantial gains following the Civil War,
including two dozen members of Congress, governors and state
legislators. Suddenly, all of that disappeared, not because of
black ineptitude, but because of white racism, the tyranny of
the majority. In the eyes of many, blacks were becoming too equal.
Blacks did not deserve citizenship, including the right to exercise
political and economic power. The result of this sentiment was
states' rights, Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynchings. The Constitution,
so it seems, has never applied to black people. Thus, the history
of this nation has been a struggle in which we have been forced
to demand that we not be treated as outcasts.
The rejection of Cynthia McKinney's district
raises some questions. Why are you against the right of black
people to elect their
own representatives? Why are you seemingly fighting the interests
of your own people? What makes a 60% black district unacceptable,
but a 90% white district acceptable? Why have some southern states
recently elected their first black representatives since Reconstruction?
Why are there only two black representatives from majority white
districts, and one black senator? If you are unaware of the pervasiveness
of racism in this country, past and present, then you choose
not to concern yourself with it. As Cornel West recently warned: "John
Jay Chapman said it well when he said, 'White supremacy is like
a serpent wrapped around the legs of the table upon which the
Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence.' To talk
about race in America is to take us to the very heart, the very
core, of what it means to be an American."
Of course, you are entitled to your opinion. African-Americans
are not monolithic. Further, as a member of the Supreme Court
with a lifetime job, you have the freedom to vote as your conscience
dictates. However, you do not have the moral right to vote in
the spirit of Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision,
or the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson. I do not know
what is in your heart, and can only speculate about your motive.
Nevertheless, I do know that many in the black community are
concerned that you have drifted away, never to return. You were
raised in this country as a black man, and should know better.
When I observe the state of 1995 America, I am reminded of another
country in another time. The nation was suffering from economic
problems and social despair. The Angry White Men of that nation
had to blame someone for their misfortunes and suffering, and
selected the Jews as the personification of their problems. The
majority society claimed that the Jews were taking all of the
jobs, and were responsible for poverty, moral degradation and
social decline. Laws were enacted to isolate, oppress, and eventually
dispose of the minority group. Some Jews, the Judenraten, participated
in the oppression of their own people, perhaps in an attempt
to immunize themselves from personal harm. Of course, these individuals
soon learned that their attempt was in vain, that they were being
utilized by the majority society, and they too would perish.
Justice Thomas, if I sound harsh it is because of the harsh
conditions that the Supreme Court is creating. If you are still
angry about the confirmation hearings, move beyond your anger.
Unlike Henry Foster, you were afforded a floor vote in the Senate.
If you are angry at black people for what they call you, prove
that they are wrong. Concern yourself more with how historians
will judge your tenure on the Court. We are approaching the twenty-first
century, yet seem to be regressing back to the nineteenth. During
a time of increasing diversity in the United States, we cannot
afford to return to the ignorant backwater days of Jim Crow.
Moreover, we cannot allow a black man to lead the way.
David A. Love
BC Columnist David A. Love is an attorney
based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive
Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune
News Service. He contributed to the book, States of
Confinement: Policing, Detention and Prisons (St. Martin's
Press, 2000). Love is a former spokesperson for the Amnesty
International UK National Speakers Tour, and organized the
first national police brutality conference as a staff member
with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. He
served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. Click
here to contact Mr. Love.