Clarence Thomas used to be a radical. He used to help the Black Panthers run free clothing programs in Massachusetts. He spent his early college days helping found the Holy Cross Black Students Union. He could even quote many of Malcolm X’s speeches by heart.
I used to ask about Thomas: “what changed?” How did someone so committed to Black liberation come to rule against the very policies that empower Black people –– voting rights, abortion rights, and affirmative action? But I don’t think he changed so much as he settled, accepting a cynical worldview and placing no stock in the possibility of a radically different American society.
Clarence Thomas grew up poor in Pin Point, Georgia. A descendant of the Geechee people, Thomas spoke Gullah, learned how to fish, and spent his days playing in fields with other kids in the coastal town. He was raised by a single mother, but when her house burned down and she couldn’t afford to fix it, Thomas went to live with his grandfather. A forceful patriarch and disciplinarian, Thomas’ grandfather sought to impose structure on his life, sending him to a white private Catholic school. There, Thomas found himself completely isolated. In the dorms at night white students would joke that he needed to smile for them to be able to see him properly, and because of segregation, Thomas was barred from going to public establishments with his white friends. When learning English, one of the school’s priests even told him that he “would have to learn how to talk properly if [he] didn’t want to be thought ‘inferior.’” These are likely the moments where Thomas’ cynicism began to creep in.
I fear a similar thing may be happening to me. I was raised by a single mother on the West side of Chicago. And though I came from a middle-class background, I grew up in a neighborhood starved of resources. Because of decades of segregation and disinvestment, my neighborhood was peppered with dilapidated houses and vacant lots that sprouted waist-high weeds. It was common to live in a food desert and see police cars line the block. My mother knew that she had to seek opportunity for me outside of the neighborhood, so she sent me to a selective high school in a majority-white area, and I quickly found myself in classes where few people looked like me. I got similar comments to those Thomas did, about my skin color and my hair and my ability to learn. It made me feel lost.
It is deeply disorienting as a Black kid from a poor neighborhood to be thrust into elite, predominantly white, academic spaces. It can alienate you from yourself, precisely at the moment you are trying to understand who you are. My high school was diverse, but sitting in honors and AP classes with almost no other Black students—where my presence in the class was subtly but constantly challenged — led me to define myself in opposition to the stereotypes about me. I stopped myself from asking questions in class so I wouldn’t be seen as stupid; I spent hours pouring over books, forcing myself to perfect my understanding of every concept so I would never be caught off guard. I flattened my identity into a response to the critiques leveled by those academic spaces, and I imagine Clarence Thomas did something similar.
When Thomas reached Yale Law School, he realized he was out of his depth. The work was grueling; he studied from sunrise until his eyes failed him, and he worked a job at a legal clinic to support his wife and son. With peers and administrators suggesting Thomas had only been admitted because he was Black, he oriented his law school career toward proving otherwise. He had to disprove the admissions officer who told Black students at the law school that they were not qualified to be there and show that he could compete with the wealthy legacy kids who dominated the institution at the time. This –– the racism he faced and his desire to challenge that racism –– led him to feel profoundly isolated.
In many ways, I have felt the same sense of alienation at Yale. I don’t have the same institutional knowledge as white legacy students, who come in knowing which classes to take and which professors to build relationships with and which extracurricular groups to join. And I can’t relate to the rich, East Coast experience –– the childhoods vacations in Europe, the time spent in private boarding schools, the constant day trips to New York. There are also, of course, the more institutional reminders that I don’t belong. Seven of Yale’s fourteen residential colleges are named after known slaveholders, and the college itself is named after a slave trade profiteer. One of the buildings on the university’s old quad was built, in part, by enslaved people, and a reconciliationist monument memorializing some confederate soldiers sits close to the heart of campus.
The most jading aspect of this, though, is that these spaces also profess a commitment to diversity and inclusion. The Yale College that memorializes defenders of slavery is the same Yale College that touts its commitment to shallow equity initiatives, initiatives that focus on the aesthetics of equality rather than its substance. And it is all the more frustrating to know that these massively wealthy spaces, which are becoming more and more selective with each admissions cycle, are offering half-hearted attempts at promoting justice while people in my neighborhood, in Thomas’ neighborhood, have been demanding access to the resources these spaces hoard.
It’s easy to see how elite white academic spaces can make one a cynic. To see a university display strong rhetorical support for diversity and justice, while simultaneously resisting meaningful commitments to change, is to doubt the legitimacy of such commitments. It is to suspect that elite white academic institutions have a material stake in maintaining the status quo, which means not really including you. It is to develop a feeling that you are being used by the university to further its ends –– adding a diverse look to a fundamentally unjust elite class. And so, alienated by the university’s culture and resentful of its motives for admitting you, it makes sense to be skeptical of any help coming from these places. It can lead you to lean into a vision of the world that calls for Black self-determination instead of white accommodation. This is the path Clarence Thomas followed, a belief system that has become a core part of his ideology.
Clarence Thomas has long viewed American society as incurably racist. In an early career interview, he says of being Black, “I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are at what you do—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.” As such, Thomas views the assistance of white elites not as altruistically motivated, but as an attempt to keep Black people subordinate to them. These beliefs have, in part, placed Thomas in firm opposition to affirmative action.
In his opinion on the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, he calls affirmative action a “solution to the self-inflicted wounds of elitist admissions policy.” He accuses such policies as attempts to legitimize elite spaces by diversifying their look. If these elite white spaces were truly committed to addressing racism, he says, they would make themselves less selective. It is his educational experience that has also led him to believe that affirmative action demeans its recipients and delegitimizes their accomplishments –– that was certainly what happened to him. Unable to get any job offers coming out of Yale Law School, Thomas attributed his misfortune to employers assuming that he had only been admitted to Yale Law because he was Black. As he tells the story, he peeled a 15-cent sticker off of a pack of cigars and stuck it on his law degree to remind himself of how little it was worth.
Thomas’ alternative vision for Black people is thus one of individualism and personal thrift. Black people are to avoid placing faith in any elite white space, especially universities. Instead, we are charged with strengthening our own institutions –– schools, businesses, and neighborhoods. It is, in Thomas’ mind, a Black proletarian ideology that creates “true” independence, rather than perpetual reliance on benevolent white people.
There is something appealing about this vision. My neighborhood was, is, a repository for Black creativity and ingenuity –– people take cracked concrete walls and use them as canvasses for art, they take outlandish ideas and turn them into lucrative side hustles, they use the little resources we were given to build institutions that infuse our community with life and beauty. Of course it makes sense to protect and support that. And it feels good to say we won liberation by ourselves –– it’s empowering and affirming in a way that integration into elite white spaces can’t be. But this vision, Thomas’ mission, misses something.
The fight for justice isn’t zero-sum. We can invest in Black institutions and also view elite white academic spaces as potential sites of solidarity and liberation. Yes, white institutions can be hypocritical, alienating, and oppressive, but Thomas’ pessimism keeps him from seeing how Black students, and everyone existing at the margins of a university, can reclaim that space’s resources and direct them toward the pursuit of justice. The co-founders of Black Panthers met through the Afro-American Association at their college. Civil Rights groups like SNCC, which organized sit-ins and freedom rides throughout the South, were led by college students. Black college students built solidarity with other students in the late 1960s to establish African-American studies programs at elite universities across the country (including at Yale), and did it again in the 70s and 80s to force universities to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Thomas’ frustration with white elites forgets all of this, leading him to forswear solidarity and kill a movement before it starts. Wary of affirmative action and government intervention, Thomas expresses a reverence for free-market capitalism. He cheers return to a patriarchal family structure, where hierarchy and domination empower Black children to succeed without elite white academic spaces. He expects the ideas that have long oppressed Black people to free us if we just commit to them with fervor. This that kind of politics is self-defeating. If you doubt the ability of elite white spaces to be used for change, or for Black people to build a solidaristic movement, or for all of us to find solutions to injustice outside of what’s already been tried, then there’s no point to the political struggle, really.
My fear, though, is that I, or maybe others who find themselves in elite white academic institutions, will eventually settle for that view. That we get weary enough to concede that these spaces will not change and that we should stop trying. But my hope is that we learn from Clarence Thomas and continue to challenge these elite white academic spaces, and our country as a whole, to follow through on the values that they profess. My hope is that we use our unique positions as students at elite white universities to oppose the hierarchies they explicitly support, demanding that their resources be used to create true political and economic equality across society.
Above all, I hope that we continue exploring broader, bolder visions of justice and progress than what Thomas offers, and that we do so in solidarity with one another.
Caleb Dunson is a student at Yale University studying economics and political science. You can read more of his work at the Yale Daily News.