Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

To begin to understand Clarence Thomas, you have consider where he came from, the influence of his grandfather, the racism and challenges he faced growing up in the segregated South and as the first black in all-white schools. The challenges he faced because of his race and class (he was the best reader in his family when he was in third grade), were steep. Yet he would go on to graduate with honors at overwhelmingly all-white Holy Cross, where he was an outspoken activist who admired Malcolm X.

Throughout the book, themes of isolation and loneliness emerge. He wrote of wanting to be "home," and over the course of several days spent with Thomas, it's clear he seeks to connect with people on a personal level, always plumbing their backgrounds for common ground to continue a conversation. He has become a huge fan of the University of Nebraska football team (his wife Virginia attended school there), and he knows several of the young players personally, sometimes sending them handwritten notes of encouragement. Many call him "Coach," and they listen intently when he addresses the team and calls on them to "do your best."

Thomas can easily find that common ground, because, as he says, he has always traversed different worlds — beginning as a poor teenager sent away to an all-white Catholic boarding school, where his white Southern classmates had been taught as children not to drink from the same water fountains as blacks. Thomas entered that world, largely alone, and dealt with racism and prejudice — for most of his formative teenaged years — as the only black.

"One of the vows I made years ago when I was in school was that if I was ever in the position to help, I wouldn't do to young kids — who were trying — what had been done to me. Because the loneliness, even with doing all the things you have to do, the loneliness is one of the hardest parts — to think nobody cares, and it doesn't really make a difference," Thomas said in an interview in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he had addressed the football team before its game against the University of Southern California.

He is part of another great generation — a generation of blacks who integrated a racist society, whose entry into those hostile white worlds was, in many ways, no less courageous than the brave men who stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Those battles obviously shaped Thomas and his views. And Thomas also had scars because of class: he would become acutely conscious of his lower class social status when he encountered the more elite and privileged blacks in the Ivy League of the Northeast. That all fueled his struggles and his doubts: His book is almost astonishingly unflattering in parts and unflinchingly honest in others — about his struggles with alcohol and finances, about his guilt in divorcing his wife and his feelings of forever being an odd-man out, unable to go "home."

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