Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

Thomas stopped drinking shortly after he took over as chair of the beleaguered EEOC. He made a number of management improvements there, including toughening the agency's approach to enforcement in individual cases. By the end of his tenure, the Washington Post would applaud him for his "quiet but persistent leadership" that increased the number of cases that were processed and filed.

He continued to have conflicts with the Reagan administration, and seems to hold some administration officials, including Brad Reynolds, the head of the civil rights division in the Justice Department, in low regard. He describes being asked to meet with some officials in the White House Mess, and is told how he should be doing certain things at EEOC.

Thomas responds: "There are only two things I have to do: stay black and die."

He would be the administration's second-highest ranking African-American official, but he was critical of the administration's approach to race.

"I found it impossible to get the administration to pay sufficient attention to such matters," Thomas wrote. "As I told a reporter… 'conservatives don't exactly break their necks to tell blacks that they're welcome.'"

His offer to help with Reagan's reelection "met with near total indifference," he wrote. "The president's reelection strategy didn't include the black vote, there was no role for me."

In 1983, he flew to Chicago for a speech to a women's rights organization, Women Employed, and he wrote that he is struck by how "angry they seemed to be about their lot in life." His old consciousness about race and class seems close to the surface, as he wrote: "How could these well-off white women be more bitter than the poor blacks and Hispanics with whom I met regularly at EEOC?"

His brother Myers, who was living in Chicago, met him after the meeting. Thomas wrote that his battles at EEOC and his anxieties about his personal life "drained me of what little energy I had." He was looking forward to a quiet evening with Myers, his wife and their daughter. But Myers instead had heartbreaking news.

"Your daddy died," he told Thomas as he drove.

"You mean C?" Thomas asked, referring to their biological father they called by an initial.

"No. Myers Anderson — the only daddy you ever had," Myers said.

Anderson had suffered a stroke when coming out of the fields of his Georgia farm, Myers said, and he was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital.

It came as a brutal shock to Thomas, and he pummeled himself for not fully reconciling with Anderson. He had visited him in Georgia only the month before, when the two men shared their first and only embrace.

In the book, Thomas wrote of how he "hated myself for having succumbed in college to radical ideologies… that we only came together at the last possible moment, bridging the gulf of mistrust with a single tentative embrace," Thomas wrote. "I would never be able to tell him how right he'd been, or how much I admired or loved him, or that it had been immaturity and false pride that kept me from forgiving him for the harshness with which he had treated Myers and me."

Thomas says it was "one of those moments in your life where you wish you had reconciled totally and had the full benefit of that life and closeness of the person you admired and wanted to be like."

Their embrace, he says, was a "beginning, but it's not nearly enough."

"He and I looked into each other's eyes and recognized that we were just alike. And that was a source of so much conflict between us," Thomas explains. "In so many ways, I am a modern-day version of him… I am what (he) made me, to be independent, to make up your own mind, to always be willing to work."

And then, he again summons his grandfather's words: "It's very, very hard to deal with, but you deal with it. And you play the hand you're dealt."

The summer of 1983, after his grandfather died and, months later, his Aunt Tina, passed away, seems to be the lowest part of Thomas's life. Even though he now is heading a federal agency, his financial problems are almost overwhelming. He explains in an interview that he was maintaining two households, paying private school tuition, paying off student loans — and had no safety net, no one who could bail him out or offer assistance.

"I sometimes wonder how I got through the summer of 1983 without falling apart," he wrote. "I was lower than a snake's belly… and the mad thought of taking my own life fleetingly crossed my mind. Of course I didn't take it seriously if only because I knew I couldn't abandon Jamal as I had been abandoned by C."

That September, his son Jamal came to live with him. The two moved to cheap apartment in Maryland, and Thomas went further into debt to buy furniture.

Thomas in the next few years became more publicly conservative and more open to attack. When Hodding Carter, the white former aide to President Carter, published an article in Playboy in 1986 titled "Reagan and the Revival of Racism," Thomas wrote a critical letter in response. Carter shot back in the magazine: "Mr. Thomas is surely familiar with those chicken-eating preachers who gladly parroted the segregationist's line in exchange for a few crumbs from the white man's table. He's one of the few left in captivity."

"Not a single civil rights leader objected to this nakedly racist language," Thomas wrote. "For daring to reject the ideological orthodoxy that was prescribed for blacks by liberal whites, I was branded a traitor to my race… if I refused to be another invisible man, then I wasn't really black. I was an Uncle Tom doing Massa's bidding. That wasn't politics, it was hate."

It was at EEOC that Thomas says he began to distrust the media and believe its coverage was inherently biased. Ironically enough, Thomas had once considered being a journalist — in the South, he had seen courageous reporters be a force for change and justice during the civil rights movement. When he decided to leave the seminary, he was accepted by the University of Missouri, and he thought he'd study journalism. When he went instead to Holy Cross, he worked on the Crusader, the school newspaper.

Thomas says it's become impossible to discuss race honestly, as he began to realize when he was at the EEOC and, as the target of countless critical newspaper stories, became an object of derision.

"You can't talk about certain things, you don't say certain things. We tiptoe around all these things, while the whole issue and some of the destruction intra-racially continues," he says. "Can you talk about intra-racial crime? Can you talk about black-on-black crime honestly? Can you talk about the honest damage of the out-of-wedlock birth rate, as opposed to just rolling everything into race?

"Some of the things I've said have proven to be true. I tried just to have a discussion about it, but you can't," Thomas says. "Everything has to be white against black. You can't honestly sit down and talk about responsibilities, personal responsibility, crime or the educational process."

Thomas says he says he doesn't read the media's coverage of him today, which he calls "irrelevant and dishonest."

"I just think it's a poor way to do your job. That's just my view," he says. "And one of the vows I made when I got here was that I would never do this job as poorly as journalists do theirs."

In 1986, Thomas met Virginia Lamp, a lobbyist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He says he had "no inclination to date outside my race," and other books on Thomas have indicated he believed as a college student that blacks should not be so taken with the idea of dating whites.

"You get trapped by your bigotry, your own reaction to other people's bigotry, and in a sense you begin to absorb it yourself and take it on, where you have these artificial lines," Thomas says. "I remember being at home sometimes, praying to God for someone to come into my life who was just everything I had wanted her to be — and then she shows up, and she happens to be white. And so you just couldn't allow race to enter into it."

Some of the older members of Virginia's family in Nebraska were not so sure, and when she introduced them to Thomas at a family gathering, she recalled an uncle standing off by himself in the corner, his arms crossed disapprovingly. Again, Thomas was called to navigate a situation he'd long experienced, and again he sought a common bond.

"He went right up to my uncle — who had his arms crossed — and he started talking," Virginia recalls in an interview while sitting with Thomas in their spacious Virginia home. "Clarence talked about what my uncle did, about being a farmer and about what he did on the farm and the hogs and the cattle and the things my uncle was interested in, and, sure enough, after a while, they were all talking about the things they had in common."

When asked how he learned to navigate prejudices and bigotry, Thomas refers back to his time in the all-white seminary, when he confronted racist views. He says experiences like that "teach you not to get into the swill with the people who are trying to pull you in." And he refers to his encounters with whites today.

"On the issue of prejudice, a lot of that come out of ignorance. Once we got a chance to talk… it was gone immediately," he says of his conversation with Virginia's uncle. "He was just acting out of what he knew, and what he knew, when proven wrong, he totally changed."

"Again, I contrast that with the intentional bigotry of those who are elite," Thomas says. "It's well thought out, it's planned, it's malicious."

The couple married a year later, and Thomas wrote that he finally found "peace." With help from Virginia's parents, they bought a house and made friends with their neighbors. Thomas describes a time of planting tulips, going for long drives and cooking out on the deck.

"It was just a regular life," says Thomas. "Home was in Georgia, but I was happy where I was, and we were happy together in our little home, and it was just wonderful. It was a very, very good life."

To continue on to Part VI: Becoming a Judge — and perhaps a Justice, please click here.