Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

One of the nuns who had mentored him suggested he apply to Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., where a friend from his all-black high school was also a student. With excellent grades from high school and Immaculate Conception, and the strong recommendation from the nun, he was accepted. He wouldn't have needed affirmative action to get in, and he says he did not benefit from it. He was one of six black students in the all-male class of about 550.

"I didn't have this view that I was going to go North. Ideologically, I wanted to be like the Northern kids who were no longer submissive. They were fighting back on the racial issues," Thomas says. "But I didn't want to go North. That was not a part of it. But it was the only option I had after I got kicked out of the house."

At Holy Cross, Thomas says he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X so many times that the pages grew worn. Thomas admired his philosophy of self-reliance and, having grown up in the segregated South, shared Malcolm's distrust of government and "the man," and he angrily saw racism everywhere. He was part of a black community at Holy Cross, but he also developed friendships with whites.

As Thomas became something of a radical at Holy Cross, the rift with his grandfather grew deeper, and Thomas began wondering whether Anderson was "a coward or a fool." But he was conflicted, and he never completely embraced the radical movement that swept up many of his classmates. When he attended a protest in Boston in 1970 that turned violent, and he went to chapel when he got back to Holy Cross and prayed.

"I just asked God to take hate out of my heart, and I just vowed that if he did I would never hate again," Thomas says.

The day after he graduated from Holy Cross with honors, he married his college girlfriend, Kathy Ambush. He wrote that he had begun to drink a fair amount in college, and that on his wedding day, he was hungover and riddled with doubts — and headed for Yale Law School.

When he starts classes at Yale, he wrote of his old fear of failure, and how "panic and dread" threatened to overwhelm him. Again, he feels out of place. "I was among the elite, and I knew that no amount of striving would make me one of them," he wrote.

He didn't try to become one of them or to blend into their world. He says he wore overalls and a hat, like he had been working in the fields. In the book, he sounds enormously bitter about his years there, but in an interview, he acknowledges his depiction "may be tainted by the years after my graduation," when he saw all his accomplishments "rolled into the race issue" because of affirmative action and watched as some professors at Yale actively opposed his Supreme Court nomination.

"When I was at Yale, I got along fine. I had friends. The professors were great. I took a lot of very demanding courses — and, again, it was the seminary all over again. Here's this challenge," he says. "But (then) all my achievements were collapsed, or actually discounted. That did not happen in the seminary, it did not happen at Holy Cross. But everything — all the hard work, those long hours, the deferred gratification — suddenly was discounted.

"The assumption was that you only have that because you're black, and it's not as good as the white kids," Thomas says. "And that would be, again, one of the things that would happen when I was nominated to the Court — that I couldn't possibly be as good as the white Yale graduates, because I obviously went to Yale because of the color of my skin. So everything was discounted.

"And I always find it fascinating that people who claim, well, you did this because you went to Yale, all these good things happened because you went to Yale," Thomas says. "I couldn't get a job out of Yale Law School."

Thomas came to believe whites assumed he wasn't as smart as his white Yale classmates, and when he couldn't get a job when he was graduating, he saw that as proof: Because he was black, he says, people believed his degree was not as good as a white student's degree. He saw no "benefit" from affirmative action.

"I was humiliated," he wrote, "and desperate." He peeled a 15-cent sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of his degree "to remind myself of the mistake I'd made by going to Yale."

"I never did change my mind about its value," he wrote. "I stored it in the basement of my Virginia home — with the sticker still on the frame."

Unable to get a job at a law firm, the Yale network nonetheless helped him get work. Alumnus John Danforth, then the attorney general of Missouri who would play a prominent role in Thomas's life, offered him a position as a lawyer in office.

Thomas says Danforth had none of the condescension he'd seen from other eastern elites, and that he vowed to treat him like everyone else. But he was "dubious about working for a Republican," because he saw himself then as a moderate or libertarian.

"I never said I was a conservative. That just was not part of my thinking. If anything, I considered myself more of a libertarian. I was a registered independent politically and had found it very difficult to go work for a Republican," Thomas says.

He recalls, for example, Danforth stopping by his office when the attorney general was preparing to argue a case defending abortion restrictions. Danforth's position was that the federal government had no business telling the states what to do on abortion. Thomas responded: "The state had no business telling women what to do with their bodies."

He was the only black attorney in the office, but he wrote that he begins to relax and that soon Jefferson City "felt like home." He spends much of his time in court, trying cases and arguing appeals, and he liked the objective nature of his work.

He also begins to see a real evolution of his ideological views in Jefferson City. He pulls ideas from his grandfather, from his experiences at Holy Cross and Yale, from current events — like the battle over school busing, which he strongly opposed (and vowed never to send his son to a public school because of it).

"There was no pressure to play the black role or to play the victim role or anything. You were just… you were you. And so you started thinking about things more deeply. You started debating them, discussing them with friends who would be honest with you about what they thought," Thomas says.

"The change was that I wasn't drinking this sort of ideological Kool-aid anymore," Thomas says. "I was trying to think things through, which was very important to me, and the more I thought, the more isolated I felt, because I was deviating from the prevailing wisdom about things like busing, etc."

As a black man he is again alone — this time ideologically, and "loneliness breeds doubts," he wrote. When a colleague told him about a review of a book by Thomas Sowell, the conservative black economist, and Thomas wrote that he drank his words like a man dying of thirst.

Thomas wrote that he had always assumed whites — liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners — were different breeds of snakes, drawing on a metaphor he heard as a child from his grandfather when they walked in the woods of rural Georgia. The pandering and paternalistic liberal was the water moccasin; the hostile conservative was like the rattlesnake. But he finds himself agreeing with Sowell, "a black man who talked hard common sense about race" and was featured in the pages of the conservative Wall Street Journal.

"I was not becoming conservative," Thomas says. "I was just becoming a thinking person."

Thomas wrote in the book about his desire to return home to Georgia, and his dream of helping fellow blacks after his own experiences. Yet he decided instead to take a job in the legal department of Monsanto and stay in Missouri. In an interview, Thomas says he wanted to start in a corporation with the "eventual hope" that he would go home and run a business. He also said the decision was a financial one, and that he was increasingly unhappy in the corporate legal environment.

At Monsanto, Thomas says he spent many long lunches with the only other black in the company's legal department, Larry Thompson, who, at Thomas's urging, would leave the company to be a federal prosecutor in Atlanta and ultimately become the deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration.

The two talked about race and their determination not to be cast as stereotypes or in "race jobs" that whites thought blacks should have. Thomas had disdain for the black manager in charge of the company's affirmative action compliance plan, who he describes as seeing people as "numbers" and being unconcerned about their progress once he met his quotas. Thomas says he wanted to change the world in more practical, pragmatic ways that didn't put blacks in boxes.

To continue on to Part IV: A Conservative in Washington — And the Personal Struggles, please click here.