A Voting Rights Reminder for Clarence Thomas

Saturday, May 30, 2009

"Don't shame me. And don't shame our race."

-- Myers Anderson's counsel to his grandson, Clarence Thomas ("My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir," by Clarence Thomas, 2007.)

There is no way of knowing what Myers Anderson would think of his grandson's performance as a Supreme Court justice. Anderson, whom Thomas called "Daddy," died two days before his 76th birthday in 1983 while Thomas was still chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Would Myers Anderson, a black man who struggled mightily to do for himself and who, according to Thomas, routinely put up his property as bond to bail student protesters out of jail, take pride in his grandson's service on the high court?

Would "Daddy" be able to reconcile the steadfast support that he gave the local NAACP chapter in Savannah, Ga., with his grandson's votes on race and civil rights-voting issues, which his black critics have characterized as traitorous?

How would "Daddy" feel if he heard the vitriolic barbershop talk taking his grandson's name in vain -- if he learned that people of color say the man he helped raise from childhood should be ashamed of himself for having dishonored the seat Thurgood Marshall had held?

Of course, the answers to those questions are unknowable. Just as there is no way to precisely measure the extent of African Americans' hostility toward Thomas.

This much is clear: Thomas is aware of the disapproval, as he noted in "My Grandfather's Son" in several places. He also thinks it is unjustified. And he rejects the argument that he has turned his back on his race.

A "black man from the Jim Crow South" is his self-description. He writes that he simply has independent ideas of how African Americans can best achieve the common goal of equality. The pursuit of race-based remedies, he contends, is not one of them.

Reams have been written about Clarence Thomas by writers who have not exchanged two words with him. I'm not in that category. As with many other newsmakers whom I have met, Thomas and I have talked about more than I have ever written about him. I plan to keep it that way. "Off the record" means just that to me.

But Thomas will get some well-deserved scrutiny when, as expected, a few days from now the Supreme Court hands down its decision in a crucial voting rights case, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder. At issue is whether Congress can continue to require states with egregious past and current discriminatory voting practices to first receive clearance for changes in voting procedures from the Justice Department or a federal judge.

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