The elevation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court would be the logical culmination of a strategy designed by the conservative political establishment to supplant liberal black political leadership with a more conservative genre. With the upcoming retirement of Rep. William Gray and Justice Thurgood Marshall, the principal black officials left in national government will all be Republican. This cynical strategy began with the Reagan administration's early attempt to substitute conservative black social scientists and activists for the mainstream black political and civil rights leadership. At his most recent press conference George Bush even railed against "those leaders who are supposed to represent all blacks" when questioned about his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
Since the Reagan years, a succession of black conservatives have emerged, and their ideas have been given extraordinary public credibility. And even though they have no measurable following in mainstream black public opinion, they are nevertheless pitted against legitimate black spokesmen as though their views were equally representative, with the paean that "blacks are not monolithic."
Seldom is it suggested that it is one thing to point out the obvious -- that black opinion is indeed not monolithic -- but quite another to imply that there is no predominant opinion, or that a sliver of conservative opinion should equal in weight the dominant liberal values of the majority. The deliberate process of legitimizing minority views within the black community is an oppressive impediment to the true expression of black mainstream opinions.
Although it is possible that the current composition of the Supreme Court does not represent white public opinion, it is more difficult to make this charge, since there are eight white justices possessing different opinions and thus an opportunity for a more comprehensive representation of societal views. However, with one black on the court, the same case cannot be made that his potential opinions would "represent" to any significant degree, black public opinion. Thus, the elevation of Thomas to the court would reflect the elevation of a minority opinion within the black community and would further skew the democratic process by further politicizing the national consensus on many of the great issues facing society.
Now, it is possible to argue -- and surely Thomas will -- that he is not being appointed to the court to represent black opinion, that his duty is corporate and his race is incidental. I would be willing to concede the fact that the court, strictly speaking, is not a representative body. Nevertheless, there has emerged in the nomination process the sentiment that it should begin to roughly reflect the public in its dominant racial, ethnic and gender composition. And since the court adjudicates with a socio-legal insight, the question is, should it not reflect the views of the public to a substantial degree?
It is unavoidable that the broader political function Thomas will serve -- diagnosed bluntly by Thurgood Marshall -- is that his race will be used to foster the illusion of a democratic consensus with respect to decisions of the court. As such, this would constitute a perversion and a fraud.
There is a striking parallel in black history to the elevation of Thomas by the current political establishment. It is the promotion of Booker T. Washington to a similar position of leadership among blacks during the conservative revolt against Reconstruction at the turn of the century. As history eerily repeats itself, it is ironic to find the NAACP appearing to temporize on the nomination of Thomas when one consider that W. E. B. DuBois and others founded that organization in order to have a vehicle to oppose Booker T. Washington's influence and to project a more valid black agenda before the American public.
Blacks should release themselves and their allies from the vacuous, politically symbolic position of putting a black on the court at any cost, and instead pursue the more lofty objective of revealing the content of Thomas's judicial character. Thomas might be opposed in this regard both because his record is undistinguished and because his views are unrepresentative. In this sense, he will be found not to be the "black" nominee to the court, because "blackness" ultimately means more than color; it also means a set of values from which Thomas is apparently estranged.
The writer is chairman of the political science department at Howard University.