Opinion | What the reactions to Clarence Thomas post-Roe reveal about white liberals

There were six Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade last week. The majority opinion was authored by Justice Samuel Alito. However, in the aftermath of the ruling, there has been an intense and particular focus on a different justice: Clarence Thomas.

Soon after the court handed down its decision, some pro-choice advocates began hurling outrageous and overtly racist remarks in Thomas’ direction (including liberal evocations of the “N-word” on Twitter) — often to the acclaim of some other left-aligned whites. 

Thomas’ embrace of the Republican Party is consonant with a deep mistrust of white liberals, the institutions they control and the policies they try to advance in the name of “social justice.”

The remarks were so ubiquitous that “Uncle Clarence” began trending on Twitter, a reference to the eponymous character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” who has emerged as a symbol of Black men who are too subservient to whites. 

In practice, the term is primarily deployed against Black people who strike positions that elite liberals find distasteful. For instance, “Uncle Tim” previously trended on Twitter after Black Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s rebuttal of President Joe Biden’s inaugural address to a joint session of Congress. 

Then again, in other cases, minorities who violate the preferences and sensibilities of liberals are literally declared to be white instead. At least insofar as Thomas and Scott are branded as race-traitors, critics still recognize their race. 

However, there is a deep irony in characterizing Thomas as an “Uncle Tom” (or worse) given that, prior to pursuing public service, he identified with Black nationalism. He is currently married to a white woman and has aligned with the GOP. However, as political theorist Corey Robin has shown in his book “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas,” his views on race and racial issues have remained highly consistent over the course of his life.

Indeed, Thomas’ embrace of the Republican Party is consonant with a deep mistrust of white liberals, the institutions they control and the policies they try to advance in the name of “social justice.” 

This mistrust was widely shared among Black activists of his generation — and is in keeping with Thomas’ Supreme Court decisions, including overturning Roe. If anything, the racialized attacks many liberals directed at Thomas in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling confirm the pessimistic view of race relations that prevailed among many of the Black thinkers who shaped Thomas’ worldview and is exhibited by Thomas himself. 

For instance, Thomas was deeply inspired by Malcolm X. He had a poster of Malcolm X that hung in his dorm room. He memorized many of his speeches by heart, and he continues to evoke him frequently to this day.

It was Malcolm X, of course, who famously declared that, “In this deceitful American game of power politics, the Negros (i.e. the race problem, the integration and civil rights issues) are nothing but tools, used by one group of whites called Liberals against another group of whites called Conservatives, either to get into power or to remain in power.”

He argued that white liberals and white conservatives differ “only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor.” He continued, “By winning the friendship, allegiance and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or a tool.”

A 2019 New Yorker profile reported that Thomas also supported Black Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver and Communist Party member Angela Davis, both of whom had been wanted by police. 

“When he was asked at his confirmation hearings what he majored in, Thomas said, ‘English literature.’ When he was asked what he minored in, he said, ‘protest,’” the article notes, pointing out that his first visit to Washington was to march against the Vietnam War and the last rally he went to demanded the release of two Black Panthers. “I was never a liberal,” the article quotes him as saying at a talk in 1996. “I was a radical.”

Thomas seems to have been put on this path by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. King had advanced a particularly optimistic view of white liberals and cross-racial advocacy. However, in the months leading up to his death, even he was forced to concede that “Negros have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white America at their word when they talked of it as an objective.”

In contrast, he wrote, most whites “proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap — essentially, it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it. Most abrasions between Negros and white liberals arise from this fact.”

The political theorist Robin notes that, in the aftermath of King’s assassination, which occurred when he was a student at Holy Cross in Worcester, “by his own report, Thomas has a realization that nobody is going to do anything for black people. And by nobody, he means white liberals and white leftists.”

By the time Thomas arrived at Yale Law School, he was militant on racial matters and more-or-less fully disillusioned with mainstream liberalism. Hillary Clinton, who overlapped with him in the early ’70s, recently declared that as long as she has known Thomas, he’s always been filled with “grievance,” “anger” and “resentment.” Unsaid, but critical context: These were feelings Thomas displayed toward white liberals in particular (like Clinton herself), who dominated Yale at the time, and who continue to dominate elite spaces today. 

Thomas noted in a recent interview that people regularly assume he has difficulties around other Black people by virtue of his politics. “It’s just the opposite,” he declared. “The only people with whom I’ve had difficulties are white, liberal elites who consider themselves the anointed and us the benighted … I have never had issues with members of my race.”

In fact, there have been many prominent Black intellectuals and leaders whose Black nationalist-inflected mistrust of white liberals ultimately led them to conservativism. For Thomas, it was the work of Black economist Thomas Sowell that ultimately helped him channel his misgivings toward “white saviors” into a coherent, right-aligned political philosophy. 

There is a deep irony in characterizing Thomas as an “Uncle Tom” (or worse) given that, prior to pursuing public service, he identified with Black nationalism.

However, Black nationalist impulses continue to influence his rulings and judicial philosophy. For instance, core to Thomas’ thinking, per Robin, is “a belief in Black self-defense.” This commitment undergirds Thomas’ staunch support for the Second Amendment. It also plays a role in his opposition to abortion. 

Thomas has expressed repeatedly that his aversion to abortion is significantly informed by its deep and longstanding ties to racial eugenics programs. It should be noted that these eugenics initiatives were pushed heavily by white liberals of the time, also in the name of helping the marginalized and disadvantaged. Thomas has no trust in similar social justice rhetoric being deployed by abortion rights advocates today.

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Instead, the reactions many contemporary liberals have directed toward Thomas for diverging from their preferred policies on abortion — including an unabashed embrace of racial epithets and slurs, in the name of social justice advocacy no less! — seem to be a clear vindication of Black nationalists’ longstanding suspicion that, at bottom, many self-described “allies” are themselves deeply racist and simply use the Black cause as a convenient vehicle for shoring up their own power and influence.

As cultural critic Yasmin Nair put it in a tweet on Saturday, “Clarence Thomas is not your ‘I can be a racist’ card, people.” This is something that should never even have to be said to those ostensibly committed to social justice. The fact that it apparently must be said is telling.

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