Watching Clarence Thomas’s interview on 60 Minutes (Thank God for YouTube) reminded me again how powerful and misleading testimony can be. There is nothing like hearing someone tell her or his own story, nothing like observing the construction and performance of a person's version of the truth.
Thomas constructed a mythic African American tale, complete with an absent father, a disempowered mother, an infallible grandmother, and, most important of all, a grandfather who dispensed tough love and the will to succeed. As reporter Kroft lobbed questions, much in the way of a defense attorney with his client, Justice Thomas spun a tapestry of adolescent Catholicism, 60s radicalism (loved the picture with the big Afro), early adult disillusionment (the fault of affirmative action), and mature strict-constructionist constitutionality. Despite some missteps along the way, he became a son his grandfather could be proud of, a success story. Horatio Alger lives.
The Clarence Thomas of the 60 Minutes interview is compelling and tragic, having overcome obstacles and defied racists only to end up misunderstood and mistreated, not just by white people but by his own. He has a 15-cent law degree from one of the finest law schools in the country and a not-sure-it’s-worth-it seat on the highest court of the land. That is powerful stuff.
But it is also misleading. If we are to believe his explanation, liberals and Black people dislike him because he thinks for himself and refuses to walk in lockstep. I can only speak for myself, but that’s not why I don’t like Clarence Thomas. I dislike anyone who espouses the kind of judicial conservatism whose colorblindness refuses remedy to people of color, after centuries of systemic racial oppression. I don’t like anyone whose rulings consistently interpret the law to affirm big corporations against little people. I dislike anyone whose judicial philosophy is to the right of Antonin Scalia. And I especially dislike people who benefited from affirmative action to the nth degree and then offer themselves as poster children for the ridiculous position that affirmative action actually hurts black folks. White or black, male or female, I would not like Clarence Thomas the Supreme Court Justice. I don’t proclaim to know the man.
Testimony, in court and in church, is judged on the basis of the speakers’ performance and on facts known by the audience. While Thomas’s 60 Minutes performance gets an A, the testimony of his rulings tells another story.