The Supreme Court issued its opinion on the Dobbs case on June 24, reversing Roe v. Wade. The attacks on the conservative justices were immediate and vicious. The worst vitriol was poured onto Clarence Thomas.
The language was shocking. Innumerable social media posts included "F***k Clarence Thomas" and "Kill Clarence Thomas." Many employed racist language, calling him "Uncle Thomas" or a "house ni**er." Very few Democratic leaders condemned this. Many actually joined in, even leading the charge. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot shouted "F**k Clarence Thomas" in a public speech, then tweeted "a call to arms." Even before the decision, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer threatened certain justices that they would "reap the whirlwind" if they reversed Roe.
Why is it OK to use racist language about Clarence Thomas that would be condemned if applied to a progressive leader? Clues can be found in Thomas’s life story which he recently told us, first in a film and then in a book, both of the same name, "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in his Own Words." Here is what we learned.
Thomas grew up dire poverty in Savannah, Georgia, in the segregated South. After a period in college as a Black radical, he returned to the conservative values of his maternal grandfather, who raised him. The first Republican he voted for was Ronald Reagan, whom he later worked for.
The attacks on Thomas began as soon as he was publicly identified as a Black conservative. For example, in a 1986 letter to the editor in Playboy, Hodding Carter, a white southern journalist and former Carter administration flak, wrote, "As a Southerner, Mr. Thomas is surely familiar with those ‘chicken-eating preachers’ who gladly parroted the segregationists’ line in exchange for a few crumbs from the white man’s table. He’s one of the few left in captivity." As Thomas told us, "Not a single civil rights leader objected to this nakedly racist language."
The attacks on Thomas intensified during his contentious confirmation hearing in 1991. And Thomas haters have continued to attack him in the decades since then.
Our film found cartoons with Thomas in KKK robes, portrayed as a shoeshine boy to Justice Scalia, and as a lawn jockey for the far right. In one stomach-turning sketch from the hit TV show "In Living Color," Thomas is depicted obsequiously serving food to the other justices and then ignorantly voting however everyone else votes.
When asked about these, Justice Thomas said "It's a different set of rules for different people. If you criticize a Black person who's more liberal, you are racist. Whereas you can do whatever to me, or to now, Ben Carson, and that's fine because you're not really Black, because you're not doing what we expect Black people to do." As he put it, simply, he is "the wrong Black guy," with the wrong opinions, so he "had to be destroyed."
Why is it that Black conservatives are subjected to such racist, ugly caricatures? Part of the answer may lie in the gap between Black elites and the average American Black person. For example, more 81% of Black parents support school choice, but the NAACP strongly opposes it. Despite the gap on this and many other issues, about 83% of Black voters lean Democratic, according to Pew Research, and have since the civil rights movement.
Democrats simply take these voters for granted. Black leaders were free to grow increasingly radical and progressive, out of touch with the values of their voters, who had little choice. Unquestioned and unchallenged, these Black leaders view their opinions as absolute truth. Thomas is not just wrong, he is evil and a traitor to the race.
White progressives, though, are catching up. The comments about white conservative justices begin to resemble the attacks on Thomas. The attempted assassination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh is just the most extreme example.
Progressives may rue the day they inaugurated these destructive tactics. As Thomas said about the attacks on him, "It's a tactic and when people see it being successful, they don't realize they're going to be the next ones in the Tower of London. It is just a matter of time. You allow this to be a precedent in your society, and people might say, ‘Oh, it's wonderful. This particular guy is getting tarred and feathered.’ Well, there's a lot of tar, and there's a lot of feathers, and eventually you will be there."
Because Thomas was once a man of the left and is now conservative, he may realize that we cannot be certain about our current beliefs, so a little humility is in order, which is also in keeping with his deep Catholic faith. He put the Catholic Litany of Humility on his office wall and turns to it every day. We included it as the last page of our book. The litany appeals to God to deliver the speaker from the desire to be esteemed, honored, and praised, and delivered from the fear of being humiliated, despised, ridiculed, and wronged.
Humility is the quality most lacking in our public servants today. We hope the story of Clarence Thomas, as he tells it in our film and book, can inspire more of it.
Mark Paoletta and Michael Pack are co-authors of the new book "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words," taken from over 25 hours of interviews Pack conducted with Justice Thomas for the film of the same name. Pack is a documentary filmmaker, president of Manifold Productions, and former CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. He has produced over 15 documentaries for public television, most recently "Created Equal." Paoletta is a partner at the law firm Schaerr-Jaffe LLP. He previously worked as a lawyer in the George H.W. Bush White House, where he worked on the confirmation of Justice Thomas.