Sixteen years after the bitter confirmation hearings that would forever put the name "Anita Hill" in any story written about him, Thomas remains one of the most compelling and divisive figures in public life. That is both ironic and inevitable for a man who, on the surface, appears to be a study in conflicts. He is black, but a conservative. He is contrarian and independent, but wants deeply to connect with people. He holds a job he never wanted, but has strong ideas about how to do it. He fiercely protects his privacy, but has written a book that is intensely personal and, at times, anguished.
Other justices and other public officials have written memoirs, but none revealed the kind of raw pain and emotion Thomas shares. Thomas says he wrote the book, for which he received a $1.5 million advance, for several reasons — he saw it as a tribute to the grandparents who raised him, but also to provide an accurate record for history because the media sloppily or "maliciously" got it wrong. He also says he wanted to inspire young people who grow up with in poverty and with hardships "just like me," wondering if they will ever make it.
But it also seems an attempt to wrestle his story away from others who have told it — either negatively or glowingly — on both sides of the ideological aisle. He will not fit into a box, he says, or become an invisible man defined by stereotypes. He defends his views and explains them in response to liberal critics. But he reveals for the first time unflattering personal details at odds with the storyline his conservative supporters have created that he is, somehow, without flaws.
Thomas's life and experiences — growing up in the Jim Crow South, integrating all-white public schools as the only black student, confronting more latent racism after he fled to what he hoped would be "utopia" in the North — clearly have influenced how he views the law and social policies like affirmative action. His brutal 1991 confirmation battle only reinforced those deeply held views. He says he believes every discussion of race in America is fundamentally dishonest.
"It's even more dishonest than the '60s," he says.
He is adamantly opposed to affirmative action, but for entirely different reasons than white conservatives who drive the debate by arguing it's unfair to white people. Thomas says affirmative action instead has hurt blacks. It not only sends them into environments in which they are doomed to struggle instead of soar, but it also perpetuates negative stereotypes that whites hold today that all blacks are inferior to them and don't belong — just as whites in the South assumed 50 years ago.
"These ideologies that claim to be so warm toward minorities actually turn out to be quite pernicious," Thomas says.
Under affirmative action, Thomas says, whites will forever believe blacks enroll in top schools or hold good jobs only because the institutions lowered their standards to accept them — regardless of whatever qualifications an individual may actually have. The assumption is that blacks, Thomas says, are not and cannot be as good as whites.
"Once you start making these decisions and judgments about people's capabilities based on race, it is forever locked in," Thomas says. "And you can see it play out throughout my confirmation and throughout the subsequent years that I've been on the Court."