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Clarence Thomas: Americans are more 'sensitive' about race than in the 1960s

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says Americans are "more race and difference-conscious" than they were in the 1960s.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas arrives for inauguration ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas arrives for inauguration ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said Tuesday that Americans are more "sensitive" about race now than in the 1960s -- a time when public facilities in his home state of Georgia were segregated by race, the occasional Ku Klux Klan billboard dotted the Southern landscape, and where Thomas, by his own recollection, was forced to "steer clear" of certain parts of Savannah.

Thomas' remarks were first reported by Yahoo News, and were delivered at an event at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“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 non-denominational Christian university. “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.

Thomas added that “[t]he worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated...The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”

Thomas' recollection of events seems somewhat at odds with his 2007 autobiography, My Grandfather's Son, in which he wrote of growing up in Savannah that "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 also recalled being in “a constant state of controlled anxiety” as one of two black students at his seminary, which he left in 1968 after a fellow seminary student expressed the hope that Martin Luther King Jr. would die of his gunshot wounds, which King eventually did.

Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice in 1991, after weathering allegations that he had sexually harassed a former employee, Anita Hill. In his autobiography, Thomas recalled his rocky confirmation being worse than his childhood growing up under segregation, writing, “my worst fears had come to pass not in Georgia, but in Washington, D.C., where I was being pursued not by bigots in white robes but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony.”

Thomas famously referred to his hearings as a "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves," viewing Hill's sexual harassment allegations as a form of racist persecution. Hill maintains she was telling the truth, and a subsequent book provided credible support for her allegations

That Thomas recalls a life circumscribed by segregation as less "race conscious" than the one Americans live today is something of a piece with his statements that harsh public criticism is comparable to summary execution by a racist mob. That his childhood in a state scarred by Jim Crow was peacefully post-racial compared to America today is relatively new. 

In fairness to Thomas, it's probably true that Americans of varying racial, religious, and social backgrounds are more willing to acknowledge and take pride in their differences than they were in the 1960s, when all manner of discrimination was legal and to be a white, Christian heterosexual male was to not only fit an unquestioned definition of what it meant to be American, but the only way to access the full benefits of citizenship. Minorities really are much more likely today to challenge the kind of casual bigotry that once upon a time, would have been considered fit for conversation in "polite" company. 

It's just not clear how that's a bad thing.