Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hasn’t visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but he cited one of its exhibits last week to explain how Washington’s rumor mill works.
Philanthropist and Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein, who was interviewing Thomas for the Supreme Court Historical Society Annual Lecture, asked Thomas, 70, whether he knew the source of rumors that he was about to retire.
“People can say things about you and for you that have nothing to do with you,” Thomas told Rubenstein, who is also chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents.
Thomas went on to describe a recent meeting with students who described the museum’s exhibit about him, which the museum created and installed without contacting him.
“They said the exhibit said my views on affirmative action result from my going to various schools in my youth. The young woman, young student said, ‘Is that true?’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Did they talk to you before they put the exhibition up?’ I said, ‘Never.’ ‘Have you seen it?’ I said, ‘Nope. I’ve never seen it. I have no idea where it came from.’”
The source material for the exhibit appears to be Thomas’s own memoir, but he didn’t realize that because the students had the details wrong. Rather than connecting Thomas’s political views to schools from his youth, the exhibit links them to law school.
“Thomas attended Yale Law School, where he felt that whites resented him and assumed he was admitted because of racial quotas — a slight that shaped his view of affirmative action policies,” according to the text that accompanies several photos of the justice.
Thomas wrote as much in his 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.”
“I’d learned the hard way that a law degree from Yale meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks” he wrote. “I’d graduated from one of America’s top law schools, but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value.”
Thomas had no comment, according to a spokeswoman for the court. The Smithsonian had no comment about the text.
This is the second time the museum has come under fire for its treatment of the second African American member of the Supreme Court. After the African American Museum opened in 2016, supporters of Thomas blasted it for failing to highlight his accomplishments in its inaugural exhibitions. Thomas was mentioned only in connection with Anita Hill’s explosive allegations of sexual harassment during his 1991 confirmation hearings.
Following that outcry, the museum added a display on Thurgood Marshall and Thomas, the court’s two African American justices. The exhibit features a photograph of Thomas at his Supreme Court investiture on Nov. 1, 1991, a picture of him as an undergraduate at the College of the Holy Cross and a copy of Jet magazine with his image on the cover.
A short biographical section traces Thomas’s rise to the court this way:
“In 1967, the year Thurgood Marshall joined the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas was in seminary school. But after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, a disillusioned Thomas terminated his training for the priesthood. He eventually decided to study law, seeing that profession as an extension of his calling to help others. From chairing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s, Thomas was appointed a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed Thomas to the Supreme Court to fill Marshall’s former seat.”
The text also compares the two judges: “Where Marshall advocated judicial action, Thomas encouraged judicial restraint. Thomas has cited varied influences on his worldview over time, from his grandfather’s teaching to the speeches of Malcolm X and the writings of Thomas Sowell. On the Supreme Court, he self-identifies as an independent thinker who interprets the Constitution’s original intent.”
Rubenstein responded to Thomas by mentioning his role at the Smithsonian. “I’d like to invite you to come and tell us how we can fix this,” Rubenstein said, causing Thomas to laugh. “We’ll fix it, all right?”
“I knew if I got it to you, you would straighten that out,” Thomas said.