"They can't hold you into a neighborhood. They can't force you into a set of ideas. They can't make you drink from a separate fountain of knowledge … you get to choose," he says. "In a much larger sense, the ability to think yourself is kind of the culmination of what they thought would happen — that nobody would make you think what you didn't want to think. You see it reflected even today in so much of what you hear me say or what you see me doing."
Thomas encountered overt racism in high school, which he has talked about over the years and which has been described in other books about him. When he won the Latin Bee, for example, some of his classmates broke off the head of the prize, the Statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Thomas glued the head back on, and someone broke it off again. He stubbornly glued it back. He would keep that statute for decades, as a reminder.
Another time a student passed him a note in class that read, "I like Martin Luther King." Thomas opened it up and saw one word: "Dead."
"That's not something you react positively to," Thomas says. "You have a number of choices. You could continue to always fight against people who are really distractions. They're people in the cheap seats of life. Or you can do what you went there to do. I mean, did I go to the seminary to constantly get distracted by jerks, or did I go to the seminary to achieve certain goals?
Thomas says that he reacted "the way I reacted to a lot of the bad things … I would go to the chapel and simply just pray for strength to continue on."
"That was the hard part. How do you become a better person when you're dealing with people who are not good people? And do you allow them to pull you down into their swill? Those are the things that were going through my mind at 16," Thomas says. "The first reaction (is) you want to punch him. You want to hit him. You want to strike out. That's your first reaction. But then, after you've done that, what do you do? I mean how does that advance your vocation? Have you become a better person?
"And the way you ultimately win all of that is to become better than they are," Thomas says.
He says in the long run, those encounters and the racism he experienced prepared him "for dealing with the challenges" he would face later in life.
"Because, actually, the more pernicious conduct based on race would come later, certainly when I was nominated to the Court," Thomas says.
At the end of his first year at St. John Vianney, a senior signed Thomas's yearbook: "Keep on trying, Clarence, one day you will be as good as us." Thomas interpreted that to mean the white student believed, in fact, that Thomas never would be. Thomas later would come to see his experiences at Yale Law School and with affirmative action as sending the same message.
"People, when they say you accomplished things because of race, are being the judge of you, ultimately: 'We will tell you when you are as good as us, and we hold the key to that,'" Thomas says. "It's like a membership in a private club, and that's how I viewed, to a large extent, this whole Yale thing, that, 'We will allow you into our club and we'll allow you into our club of elites if you do what you're told to do.' And I reject that notion, as I reject the notion that one day, I'll be as good as you — when you say so."
And he again equates that attitude with the bigots he encountered as a teenager in the South.