Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, October 2, 2007; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Latest Column: Witness for the Persecution (Post, Oct. 2) | Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts


Eugene Robinson: Hello, everyone. I'll be here for the next hour, and I have a feeling that Topic A will be Justice Clarence Thomas, who is in the middle of a media blitz to sell his new autobiography. I wrote about Thomas today and basically suggested that he work out his issues privately and not use his position to inflict his angst -- and his anger -- on the rest of us.

Plenty of other stuff to talk about, too. Do you believe the national polls, with Hillary Clinton ahead, or the new Iowa poll, with Barack Obama ahead, or both? Which was more contrived, Rudy Giuliani's mid-speech phone call from loving wife Judi, or his explanation that the whole episode was because of Sept. 11?


Washington: Thanks, Gene, for your column today. I'm bothered by the fact that news organizations are reporting on Thomas's more salacious book passages -- many of which are complete falsities -- and not mentioning the other side and checking in with Anita Hill; her New York Times op-ed disputes his lies, line-by-line.

washingtonpost.com: The Smear This Time (New York Times, Oct. 2)

Eugene Robinson: I have to concur that there wasn't much push-back from the correspondents who conducted the "60 Minutes" and "Nightline" interviews. I assumed they were using a pretty standard interviewing technique to get a taciturn subject to keep talking, which is to nod and encourage. It was, as I wrote, compelling television and an interesting window on Thomas's mind. But I'm glad the Times ran the piece by Anita Hill to provide a different view.


San Diego: Mr. Robinson, you mischaracterize Justice Thomas as having "a persecution complex of Norse-saga proportions." That is not fair -- the old Scandinavians honored both stoicism in the face of adversity, as well as the sense of duty to challenge adversity. What made Norse morality remarkable was the lack of resentment, of the bitterness that seems to consume Justice Thomas in the most unseemly way.

Eugene Robinson: I abjectly apologize to ancient Norsemen and Norsewomen for the unintended slur. I was just thinking of Norse sagas as being tremendously expansive and somewhat over the top.


Washington: Mr. Robinson, in today's column you wrote: "Either he's being disingenuous or he has a persecution complex of Norse-saga proportions." I've always thought that it is difficult if not impossible to understand a man unless you've walked in his shoes -- so please tell me, have you ever had vile, uncorroborated charges against your character leveled at you on national TV?

Eugene Robinson: The "Norse-saga" comparison referred to his contention that he is being persecuted because he is a black conservative and his notion that all black people are supposed to think a certain way. There never has been a time in our history when all black people thought the same way, and Thomas should know that. Black people vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic party, but I doubt that would be the case if the Republicans didn't work so hard to drive black voters away.


College Park, Md.: Do you disagree with Clarence Thomas's point that blacks who have benefited from affirmative action suspect that their achievement is tainted by association with a policy known to benefit otherwise unqualified individuals solely because of their race? Don't you think Thomas, regardless of his supposed inability to move beyond the confirmation hearings, correctly points out a problem experienced by successful blacks, which also has been noted by other conservative blacks, such as John McWhorter? Also, why is this an issue only seriously dealt with by conservative blacks? Is there a group-think among leftist blacks, which results from the fear that affirmative action will be terminated if questioned by the Left?

Eugene Robinson: I disagree with all my heart, soul, fiber and being with Thomas' bizarre view that blacks, Latinos, women and others who have benefited from affirmative action feel their achievement is tarnished. That's just plain weird. Affirmative action is about opportunity -- about getting a foot in the door. After that, you have to earn the degree, do the job, make the deal, whatever.

A brief story: I was co-editor in chief of the student newspaper at the University of Michigan -- the Michigan Daily -- which was just about the best student paper in the country. I had summer internships at the Washington Star and the Detroit Free Press. I was offered my first full-time job at the San Francisco Chronicle. After I had moved all the way out there, my editor pulled me aside and told me (for the first time) that I had been hired as part of a minority training program, which meant I could be kept on probation for a full year, rather than the normal six months. I was angry at the guy for not telling me before I had moved across the country, but I wasn't mad at him for giving me a job. I knew what I could do. Three months later he called me in and told me he was taking me off probation and giving me a raise.

Why on earth would I feel my achievement was tainted? If I did, wouldn't you think that qualified as self-loathing?


New York: Robinson -- how do you blame Republicans for this monolithic voting by blacks for Democrats? Black radio, pop culture, self-proclaimed black leaders and black academia are virtually all radical liberals whose hatred for any black conservative viciously is spoken about in public forums, papers and on radio (Sharpton, Jackson, Belafonte, Farrahkan, Bond, Lee, West, etc.). These are the people who most are seen representing the black discourse, while folks like Watts, Thomas and Sowell are shouted down on college campuses, disinvited and pilloried by the "black leadership."

My friend, when our last two Secretaries of State of the United States and a Supreme Court Justice are called "Uncle Toms" by the black intelligentsia, you know there is a serious problem with the state of black America! And you are gleefully playing along, fist pumping in air, and though you are not saying "off the pigs," you contribute to this consistent dust-storm of preventing black American from embracing normal conservative views that greatly will propel the African American experience.

Eugene Robinson: What the hell are "normal conservative views?" Thomas and Sowell aren't what I would consider normal; as for J.C. Watts, I could see voting for him under the right circumstances. If you define "normal" conservatism as having to do with family values, faith, patriotism, the American Dream, then there are plenty of black conservatives. If you look at someone like Harold Ford out in Tennessee, his political philosophy is basically that of a moderate Republican. He and many others might actually have become Republicans, if the party weren't so hostile.


Boston: I found Justice Thomas's story quite compelling. I think of him as the extreme end of the split between successful middle/upper-middle-class black America vs. a larger lower-achieving group. When I was at MIT I certainly experienced people discounting my degree and achievements without regard for the actual numbers, so his opposition is perfectly understandable to me. Lowering expectations on black youth, especially men, doesn't seem to have done them any favors over the last few decades.

My question for older blacks from his generation is, how do you look at some of the youth today and not end up with Thomas's perspective? If you grew up with no running water or electricity and had to fight to get into school, how can you look at a kid with a cell phone, iPod and Xbox who can't be bothered to go to school, and say affirmative action is the solution to this?

Eugene Robinson: My observation is that back in Thomas's day there were plenty of black kids who couldn't be bothered to go to school; today, there are plenty of black kids who work as hard as he did. My question to you is: Others might discount your degrees and achievement, but do you discount them? Why?


Upper Marlboro, Md.: I thought the interview should have been televised on April 1, 2008. What a joke! I noticed in the "60 Minutes" interview that Justice Thomas did not provide an answer to difficult questions, such as why he feels that the Constitution does not allow for affirmative action. He skipped over the fact that he did burn the ladder that he climbed to achieve his success in life. He seemed to discount many issues as petty and not worthy of debate.

His only solution is hard work; he didn't really address the issue of opportunity. He was given an opportunity through affirmative action, hence his Yale degree, for which he had to work hard for once he had the opportunity. When you have built-in inequity, such as perennially bad schools as well as institutionalized racism, opportunity is least a society can provide for those who are underprivileged.

Thomas is not known for public speaking. Now all of a sudden he is speaking because he wants to sell books. I find the man to be a fraud at best. I will read his book (in the library -- I refuse to pay money for this crap) to see if he offers any solutions to the plethora of problems African Americans face. Justice Thomas, it's not all about hard work. You can work hard at the wrong things. Slaves worked very hard but they didn't receive any fruits for their labor.

Eugene Robinson: Thank you. Very well said.


Arlington, Va.: A brief story for you. About 10 years ago I had dinner with a female African American friend of mine (very liberal) in a San Francisco restaurant. It was a lesbian-owned vegan restaurant no less, which should prove my credentials. I had known and worked with this woman for 15 years. Being a few years older, I had been part of her review and promotion processes. At this dinner she told me that she believed that the only reason she had been promoted over the years was because she was a minority, not because of her excellent work.

I know this to be untrue because I was there during the review discussions. She earned her position. My friend is incredibly accomplished. She has a Princeton BA and a Wharton MBA. At the time, she was a vice president in a very prestigious international consulting firm, successfully advising primarily white male executives at global companies. She was making in excess of $350,000 per year. Like Justice Thomas, she has had trouble reconciling her success with the precepts of affirmative action. It's a story I have heard often.

Eugene Robinson: All I can tell you is that this is not a story I hear often. Basically, this is not a story that I ever hear. What I do hear are complaints from black professionals who believe that because of race they've been denied promotions or raises that they deserved -- not that they've been treated too well at the workplace.


Hodenho, Idaho: If the image of Justice in America is a blindfolded lady who holds a balance scale, why should she be encouraged to peek out from her blindfold and tip the scales for some? If Justice Thurgood Marshall -- in his Brown vs. Board argument -- articulated how public education should have nothing that is "separate but equal," and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marshall's position, why have separate and unequal admissions policies for institutions of public education -- or private ones receiving federal funds?

Justice Thomas makes a fine case for placing the blindfold back over the eyes of the statue of Justice and, just as schools should have one drinking fountain and bathroom for all, he believes that they only should have a single standard for admission. No peeking from under the blindfold. True justice.

Eugene Robinson: Justice Marshall once was asked how long he thought affirmative action would be needed, and he said 100 years. I hope he was being overly pessimistic, but think about it: You systematically enslave and discriminate against a group of people for 350 years -- let's say, 18 generations. Then you stop beating them up and say, okay, everything's fine now. Do you think those people you have (let's face it) brutalized for 18 generations are going to catch up in one generation? In two generations? Come on.


Maryland: Mr. Robinson, I am a fan of your editorials and generally agree with your opinions. However, I think Justice Thomas makes are valid point that his law degree from Yale is tainted. I am a lawyer and graduated from a good state school, but in no way was in the running for admission to Yale. Yale Law School generally accepts 5 percent of applicants and basically requires 170-plus on the LSAT (top 1 percent). At the same time, Yale virtually never gives failing grades. Therefore, graduation is virtually assured. If you take away the accomplishment of being admitted to Yale under equal standards, you take away the prestige (or at least most of it). He has a valid point.

On a separate issue, I think Justice Thomas unfairly is criticized for agreeing with Justice Scalia unthinkingly. Justice Thurgood Marshall often concurred with liberal justices; he, however, never was accused of being intellectually lazy. If such accusations were raised against Justice Marshall they would have been (and properly so) dismissed as racist. Justice Thomas often writes short opinions ... must be not thinking. Justice Marshall did the same thing. As did Justice Holmes (perhaps the greatest legal thinking of the 20th century).

Eugene Robinson: Thanks for agreeing with me most of the time, but I guess we aren't going to see eye-to-eye on Justice Thomas. What you're implying is that Yale Law School is nothing but a giant rubber stamp. The fact is that the student with the highest LSAT score doesn't always finish first in his or her class, at Yale or elsewhere. LSATs and other standardized test scores are not absolutely predictive of how someone will perform -- whether you scored 160 or 170, you have to go to class, do the reading, synthesize the material, learn how to write and think and argue. ... However Thomas got into Yale, once he was there he performed better than about half his classmates. Nothing "tainted" about that.

And I didn't criticize Thomas' style on the bench, or the fact that he agrees with Scalia. I'm confident that if Scalia weren't around, he would still vote the way he does.


Charleston, S.C.: I want to take issue with the blanket statement that the Republican Party is "hostile" to African Americans. Can you be more specific? Certainly, there are a number of African Americans that favor smaller government, lower taxes, a strong military, and have many moral and social views that are more in line with Republicans. Why do they vote Democratic? Maybe it is because of social pressures within their community instead of a hostile Republican Party.

Eugene Robinson: We have the secret ballot in black communities, too, so what "social pressures" are there? When Republican candidates start taking positions that appeal to black voters, they'll get black votes.


Washington: I'm not out to destroy Justice Thomas. But I am one of millions of women voters across the country who helped send more women to the Senate in 1992 after feeling fed up with how the men in Congress handled the issue of sexual harassment. From the "60 Minutes" broadcast, you'd think the issue was limited to Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, instead of women across the country in a wide range of jobs. We identified with Ms. Hill because of our own experiences. (And for Pete's sake, the guy was at EEOC. That was so discouraging!) I'm annoyed with "60 Minutes" for not mentioning the larger political and social context of the hearings. Even if Justice Thomas is innocent of these allegations, what he called a "high tech lynching" was the same old-boys'-club to many of us women watching at home.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks for reminding us that sexual politics were at work in the Thomas hearings as well as racial politics.


Tampa, Fla.: Justice Thomas shouldn't feel at all embarrassed or lessened by his affirmative action admission to Yale. The Ivy League schools admit far fewer students solely on merit than commonly is thought (see "The Price of Admission" by Daniel Golden). Not only do the Ivies allow more legacy admissions than people think, they also allow the rich to purchase admissions. According to Golden: "Princeton admitted Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's son even though it gave him the lowest ranking on its academic scale. Sen. Frist is an alumnus, an ex-trustee and prominent politician -- and his family has donated $25 million to the school." And we all know about W and Yale. Golden estimated it takes about $2.5 million to buy your kid into Harvard. So next time you see Justice Thomas, tell him not to lose any sleep. His admission was no more tainted than those of many, many others.

Eugene Robinson: So true.

And that has to be the last word, folks. My time is up. Last night I started a Thomas discussion in "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" in the Groups section of washingtonpost.com, so we can continue the dialog there. Thanks for a really lively hour, and see you next week.


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