Justice Thomas Faces Down Critics
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 1998; Page A01
MEMPHIS, July 29Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas faced down some of his harshest critics today, telling the nation's largest organization of black lawyers that he will not succumb to pressure to alter his conservative legal views even if it means being branded a traitor to his race.
In a simultaneously plaintive and defiant address before the National Bar Association, the court's lone African American justice said he will not give in to pressure to "follow the prescription assigned to blacks" and that those who expect him to think a certain way because of his race are denying his "humanity" and want him to be "an intellectual slave."
Thomas's appearance marked the first time that the justice has so squarely confronted his critics and demonstrated his continued resolve to take on his detractors even in the face of criticism that often takes on a scathing, personal tone.
Since President George Bush appointed him to the Supreme Court seven years ago, Thomas has been vilified by many African American leaders who see him as a key figure in the high court's efforts to dismantle affirmative action and other race-conscious initiatives that benefited Thomas himself and helped to create a generation of black professionals.
Yet Thomas's refusal to grasp the mantle of his predecessor, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and the apparent delight he sometimes takes in snubbing his critics have created the odd phenomenon of the nation's highest-ranking African American government official being widely shunned by African Americans. In his speech today, Thomas made clear he has not become inured to the reaction, nor is he changing his views because of it.
"It pains me deeply, more deeply than any of you can imagine, to be perceived by so many members of my race as being a harm," Thomas said. "All the sacrifice, all the long hours studying, were to help, not to hurt."
Thomas also angrily dismissed as "psycho-silliness" speculation by critics who call his views evidence of his self-hatred or a racial identity crisis. "Despite some of the nonsense that has been said about me by those who should know better . . . I am a man, a black man, an American."
To many of his detractors, Thomas holds a special trust, partly because he replaced Marshall, the court's first black justice. Yet he opposes many of the policies Marshall championed.
In consistently siding with the most conservative faction of the court, Thomas has angered many African Americans, particularly by opposing affirmative action and other forms of racial preference, which he has labeled racist and insulting because they imply an inferiority that demands extra help. He also has taken unpopular stands on voting rights and criminal justice.
"Justice Thomas's views are contrary to everything we hold dear," said H. Michael Harvey, an Atlanta lawyer. "He replaced the black justice. . . . Certainly, he has a special responsibility to African Americans."
Ultimately, no placards encouraging protest materialized during Thomas's speech and only about a dozen people walked out. However, shortly before Thomas took the podium, Illinois Judge Shelvin Hall criticized the grim-faced justice as someone who is rolling back the gains of the civil rights movement. Hall was sworn in as chairwoman of the NBA's Judicial Council.
Such controversy is familiar to Thomas. Two years ago, officials in Prince George's County invited, disinvited, then reinvited Thomas to speak at a school ceremony. Last year, the Maryland NAACP protested and derailed a speech Thomas was to give at a youth festival. He ended up not going.
The antipathy toward Thomas extends to a significant segment of the African American community. A 1996 national poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 44 percent of the nation's blacks had an unfavorable view of Thomas, while 32 percent viewed him positively.
Thomas has rarely confronted his critics, declining most media interview requests and accepting invitations to speak mostly before conservative or neutral audiences.
Thomas hosted and officiated at the 1994 wedding of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, a move that some say cheapened his position and conveyed Thomas's disregard for his critics. In 1984, as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas was dismissive of traditional black leaders, who he said "moan and moan, whine and whine."
And in a recent story in Esquire magazine, Thomas is quoted as advising a black, college-bound student to avoid black studies courses. In his seven years on the court, Thomas has hired only one black law clerk.
Today, Thomas called on his critics to move forward. "Isn't it time to realize," he asked, "that being angry with me solves no problems?"
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