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  •   Justice Thomas Faces Down Critics

    Clarence Thomas/AP
    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is hugged at the podium following his speech to the National Bar Association. (AP)
    By Michael A. Fletcher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, July 30, 1998; Page A01

    MEMPHIS, July 29—Supreme 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.

    'I . . . Have Been Singled Out for Particularly . . . Venomous Assaults'

    Following are excerpts of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's speech yesterday to the National Bar Association:

    As has become the custom, a wearisome one I must admit, this invitation has not been without controversy.

    There now seems to be a broad acceptance of the racial divide as a permanent state. As we once celebrated those things that we had in common with our fellow citizens who do not share our race, so many now are triumphal about our differences. . . . Indeed, some go as far as all but define each of us by our race and establish the range of our thinking and our opinions, if not our deeds, by our color. . . .

    I, for one, see this in much the same way I saw our denial of rights as nothing short of our denial of humanity. . . .

    It has struck me as odd that some think that there are cliques and cabals at the court. No such arrangement exists. . . . With respect to my following, or more accurately being led by, other members of the court – that is silly, but expected, because I couldn't possibly think for myself.

    What else could possibly be the explanation when I fail to follow an ideological and intellectual, if not anti-intellectual, prescription assigned to blacks? Since thinking beyond this prescription is presumptively beyond my ability, obviously somebody must be putting strange ideas into my mind and my opinions. . . .

    I, for one, have been singled out for particularly bilious and venomous assaults. I have no right to think the way I do because I am black. . . .

    Having had to accept my blackness in a cauldron as a youth . . . I had few racial identity problems. I knew who I was and needed no gimmicks to affirm my identity. Nor, might I add, do I need anyone telling me who I am today. . . .

    Despite some of the nonsense that has been said about me . . . I am a man, a black man, an American. . . .

    It pains me deeply, more deeply than any of you can imagine, to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm.

    I have come here today . . . to assert my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I'm black.

    I come to state that I am a man, free to think for myself and do as I please. . . .

    But even more than that, I've come to say: Isn't it time to move on? Isn't it time to realize that being angry with me solves no problems? Isn't it time to acknowledge that the problems of race have defied simple solutions, and not one of us – not a single one of us – can lay claim to the solution?

    Isn't it time that we respect ourselves and each other as we have demanded respect from others? Isn't it time to ignore those whose sole occupation is sowing seeds of discord and animus that is self-hatred? I believe that the time has come today.

    Source: Associated Press

    In what has become almost a ritual, his speech at the bar association's annual convention prompted weeks of turmoil after several prominent members voted to withdraw his speaking invitation after it had been extended. The controversy continued in the hours before Thomas's address when some NBA members circulated handbills calling for a walk-out on his speech. Others prepared placards protesting his appearance.

    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?"

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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