Museum’s slight of Clarence Thomas does African American history a disservice

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to much celebration and acclaim last month, bills itself as the “only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.” According to the Washington Post, “visitors walk the path from slavery to civil rights to the Black Lives Matter movement, and everything in between. The familiar and the untold stories of history are shared through meaningful objects: from the shawl of Harriet Tubman to a candy-red Cadillac driven by Chuck Berry, to the uneven-bar grips used by Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics.”

Yet, according to a recent news report, the museum somehow has room for just a glancing negative reference to Clarence Thomas, the only black justice currently sitting on the United States Supreme Court, and only the second to ever do so. This is a shocking slight that the museum must redress.

{mosads}The slight is especially glaring because this month marks the 25th anniversary of his arrival on the Supreme Court. In that time, Justice Thomas has established a reputation as quite simply one of the most important legal thinkers of his generation. Justice Thomas’ story of his rise from poverty to the Supreme Court should be known by all Americans. He grew up in the segregated deep south of coastal Georgia. Because of his Geechee heritage, he experienced discrimination from other African Americans as well as from whites. Thomas was fortunate that he was sent at age seven to live with his grandparents, who were both strong role models. His grandfather, Myers Anderson, was uneducated but built a small business delivering fuel oil, coal, firewood and ice in the Savannah community. He instilled the values of hard work, perseverance, and accountability. He used to tell Thomas and his younger brother, “Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him.”  

As Thomas went out in the world, he embraced the radicalism of many black students from his generation. In college, when one of his friends was unfairly singled out for discipline, Thomas concluded that, as he would later put it, “Blacks could never be treated fairly on a predominantly White campus – or in a White society for that matter. I had finally had enough.” But Thomas turned away from that path in favor of a philosophy that embraces individual rather than group rights, and that views centralized governmental as a threat to liberty.

It’s probable that the museum curators had no room for Thomas because his conservative views make him an “Uncle Tom,” as if arriving at different conclusions from his peers makes him an unsuitable topic for public conversation. But his views in fact have a long tradition in the black community. A 2005 law review article by Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, who describes herself as a “liberal black womanist,” found that Thomas’ views are “deeply grounded in black conservative thought, which has a ‘raced’ history and foundation that are distinct from white conservatism.”  She explains that “Justice Thomas’ voice is ‘raced’ in a way that exhibits significant concern for black people. . . . Indeed as I was researching and learning about black conservative ideology, I found myself (surprisingly) nodding in agreement with some of its concepts and understandings about the issues facing the black community, even though I disagreed with the ultimate route proposed for addressing these problems.” Yet despite these interesting though minority views, black leadership has often tried to stop Thomas from even speaking at events.

Thomas has been derided by many liberals, including from the black community, as a puppet of Justice Scalia. (You would think this slur would be particularly offensive to the black leadership since the exact same charge was made against Justice Marshall, with Justice Brennan serving as his Justice Scalia). This has been shameful, and his body of work from his first day on the bench proves otherwise. Thomas has written the most opinions the past two terms (37 in 2014, 39 in 2015) —twice as many as any other justice. Justice Elena Kagan only wrote twelve in each of the past two years. Does anyone question her qualifications because she does not write more?

I could cite many conservative scholars and professors praising Justice Thomas. But many liberal scholars have joined Onwuachi-Willig in recognizing the significance of his jurisprudence. Tom Goldstein, a well-respected liberal Supreme Court lawyer and founder of the SCOTUS blog, has written: “No other member of the Court is so independent in his thinking .  . .  I disagree profoundly with Justice Thomas’s views on many questions, but if you believe that Supreme Court decision-making should be a contest of ideas rather than power, so that the measure of a Justice’s greatness is his contribution of new and thoughtful perspectives that enlarge the debate, then Justice Thomas is now our greatest Justice.” 

Similarly, Mark Tushnet, a well-regarded law professor who was a very vociferous Thomas opponent when he first went on the bench, has written in his 2005 book A Court Divided that “what [Thomas] has done on the Court is certainly more interesting and distinctive than what Scalia has done and, I think, has a greater chance of making an enduring contribution to constitutional law.”

Unfortunately, by ignoring the contributions of Justice Thomas, the National Museum of African American History and Culture implies that there’s no room for a black man who dares to challenge conventional wisdom of the Left. It also ensures that visitors will learn nothing about one of our nation’s most significant jurists.

Surely a museum that “seeks to understand American history through the lens of the African American experience” should be more diverse than that.

Mark Paoletta practices law in Washington, D.C. As a member of the Bush 41 White House Counsel’s office, he worked on Justice Thomas’s confirmation. He is also the creator of the website, which provides information about Thomas’s career and legacy.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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