Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave a speech in South Florida yesterday, where the jurist, one of only two African Americans to ever serve on the high court, reflected on racial issues.
“My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,” Thomas said during a chapel service hosted by the nondenominational Christian university [Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach].“Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them – left them out.“That’s a part of the deal,” he added.
At a minimum, the Justice’s comments appear to be at odds with his 2007 autobiography, which paint a different picture of Thomas’ youth. Yesterday, Thomas said race was “rarely” an issue growing up in Savannah,” but as Adam Serwer noted, Thomas wrote several years ago that as a kid in Savannah, “No matter how curious you might be about the way white people lived, you didn’t go where you didn’t belong. That was a recipe for jail, or worse.”
Thomas even said he left his seminary in 1968 after feeling “a constant state of controlled anxiety” over being a racial minority.
That said, Thomas’ broader point about Americans being more conscious of racial issues may be true, though it’s not entirely clear why he, or anyone else, would consider this a discouraging development.
Jamelle Bouie’s take rings true.
Let’s say that Americans are more sensitive about race (and gender, and sexuality) than they were in the 1960s. This is a good thing. If blacks in Jim Crow Georgia were willing to answer to “boy” and shrug at “ni**er,” it’s because they risked danger with any other reaction.But that’s changed. We’ve made progress. And now blacks, as well as other minorities and women, feel entitled to public respect in a way that wasn’t true in the 1960s. In turn, there’s a public recognition that we should be sensitive to the concerns of these groups. This isn’t a setback – it’s progress.
Jon Chait added:
Maybe the reason race came up rarely is that the racial situation in 1960s Georgia was extremely terrible.For instance, for the first 14 years of Thomas’s life, Georgia had zero African-Americans in its state legislature. Majority-black Terrell had a total of five registered black voters – possibly because African-Americans were so satisfied with their treatment that they didn’t see any reason to vote, or possibly because civil-rights activists in Georgia tended to get assassinated.So maybe “reluctance to bring up racial issues” is not, in fact, the best measure of a society’s racial health.