Oct 16, 2020

Nationalism: Left, Right, and Black

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin (Metropolitan Books, 2019)

Review by Kristian Williams

Editor’s note: Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court seems a good occasion to consider the political history of another notorious Supreme Court figure. Clarence Thomas’s story raises larger issues about the roles that members of oppressed groups may play in right-wing politics and how elements of leftist politics can be appropriated by the right.

Two flags decorated Clarence Thomas’s apartment at Yale Law School: The red, black, and green Pan-African flag, and the Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag.

Corey Robin mentions this detail in passing in The Enigma of Clarence Thomas—which was just released in a paperback edition—but it almost serves as a microcosm of his argument.

Robin—among the most astute, and certainly the most readable, of the left-liberal scholars of the right—is kind enough to offer us a thesis statement: “The central claim of this book,” he writes, is that “Thomas is a black nationalist whose conservative jurisprudence rotates around an axis of black interests and concerns.” This interpretation will surprise most readers, for good reasons and for bad. The good reason is that, during his almost three decades on the Supreme Court, Thomas has come down repeatedly on the side opposite of anti-racist common sense. He has opposed mandatory racial integration in schools, endorsed racial segregation in prisons, refused to strengthen protections against police bias, and advocated the dismantling of affirmative action. The bad reason is that critics often treat Thomas as a mere puppet who mouths the orthodoxy of the Republican establishment with neither comprehension nor conviction. This latter presumption, Robin demonstrates ably, is so wrong that it can only be understood as a racist refusal to take the justice’s thinking seriously.

Reagan and Thomas standing facing each other in the Oval Office
Ronald Reagan and Clarence Thomas, 1986
Robin does take it seriously, and he shows that we should as well. We should take it seriously, first, because of the real-world impact of Thomas’s personal philosophy. In his position on the Court, he helps to shape both the law and its interpretation, throughout the entire United States and for generations to come. Second, we should take it seriously because of the real challenge it poses to the liberal orthodoxy. Thomas’s multi-pronged assault on affirmative action in higher education, for example, is radical in its implications and devastating in its effect: Affirmative action, he argues, stigmatizes black people and thus sustains both the institutional and emotional structures of white supremacy: it preserves feelings of superiority (accented by condescension and paternalism) among white students, professors, and administrators, while instilling a sense of inferiority among black students. Its main objective is not the improvement of the conditions among the black community overall, or even the more limited aim of equality of opportunity in education. It does not open elite institutions to black students, but instead grants limited access while preserving the institution’s exclusivity. The appearance of diversity, Thomas insists, is merely a means for the power structure to legitimate itself, and thereby maintain the inequality of the larger society. I have to admit that there just may be something to that argument.

The third reason it is worth taking Thomas’s views seriously—and this is Robin’s main point—is because Thomas’s right-wing black nationalism may sometimes also function as a sort of reductio ad absurdum to some unexamined precepts of left-wing anti-racism. “Thomas’s is a voice that unsettles,” Robin writes in the opening chapter. “His beliefs are disturbing, even ugly; his style is brutal.” But, Robin explains, if we can let ourselves “see the world through his eyes,” we may realize that “his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us even more.”

Robin builds his case largely on the basis of Thomas’s own words, drawn from his scholarly articles, legal opinions, and interviews, supported and to some degree explained with reference to his personal biography. The result is fascinating, horrifying, and, I think, persuasive—though I admit I lack the legal background that would qualify me to evaluate some of the more technical arguments, and I somehow doubt that Thomas would describe his views in just the way that Robin does. (Justice Thomas did not reply to my request for comment, submitted through the Supreme Court’s public information office.)

Clarence Thomas entered adulthood immersed in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. “I was truly on the left,” Thomas recalled in a 1996 interview. “I was a radical.” He admired Malcolm X, listening to recordings of his speeches and memorizing lengthy passages. He wore Black Panther buttons, volunteered with a Panther-inspired free breakfast program, and signed his letters “Power to the People.”

At Holy Cross, he helped found the Black Student Union, and served as its secretary-treasurer. Even at the time, he stood out among its members as ideologically severe and resistant to compromise. The group’s prohibition against interracial relationships, for example, was mainly observed in the breach; but Thomas saw it as a point of pride and even principle. He was known to harass interracial couples that he encountered on campus, and continued to oppose interracial marriage well into the 1980s.

Traditional gender roles, and especially the figure of the black man, were central to the BSU’s politics. “The Black man’s history shows that the white woman is the cause of his failure to be the true Black man,” the BSU manifesto claimed. This gendered preoccupation continued to orient Thomas’s worldview, his jurisprudence, and (as Anita Hill clearly testified) his personal behavior throughout his career.

Today, Robin argues, Thomas remains a black nationalist, but he is now a nationalist of a particular right-wing variety. “Like most ideological commitments, Thomas’s black nationalism is selective.” He rejects the notions of revolution, a separate territorial state, and Third World solidarity, for instance. “Still, many elements of the program he embraced in the 1960s and 1970s ... remain vital points of his jurisprudence today.” Among these, Robin lists “the celebration of black self-sufficiency, ... the support for racial separatism and black institutions, ... the reverence for black self-defense ..., a suspicion of white liberalism ..., skepticism of the state, pessimism about integration, a focus on the family, an emphasis on traditional morality, an appreciation of black business, and belief in the saving power of black men.”

Underlying these views is a deep pessimism. As Thomas put it: “There is nothing you can do to get past black skin.”

Thomas believes that racism is a permanent fact of American life. The question, then, is not how to eradicate it, but how black people can maintain their dignity regardless. Thomas’s concern with dignity centers on an anxiety over the character of black men in particular. Dignity in his view consists of virtues like industriousness, self-reliance, self-discipline, a stoical manner, and the personal bearing necessary both to exercise authority over one’s family and to defend it from external threats.

To cultivate those virtues, Thomas believes, one must endure coercive discipline and a certain amount of adversity. For black Americans, the state delivers both. Thomas views policing and punishment as necessary to instill the discipline and moral sense necessary for community thriving; liberal conceptions of rights only serve to make the black man weak. Direct oppression, however, can make him virtuous and strong. Thomas believes that policing can promote the virtues that lead to success in a capitalist economy, which he fetishizes partly from a distrust of government and partly from the feeling that the market is the only institution that white people cannot fully control.

Toward the end of the book, Robin steps back to take in the full picture:

“Clarence Thomas is the most extreme justice on the Supreme Court.... His jurisprudence may be a bitter mix of right-wing revanchism and black nationalism.... It begins with the belief that racism is permanent ... and ends with a dystopia that looks painfully familiar: men armed to the teeth, people locked up in jails, money ruling all, and racial conflict as far as the eye can see.... It rehearses and repeats that experience of defeat, with no sign of exit or end. It returns to scenes of ancient injury and present wrong, not to repair the first or right the second but to tell us that neither righting nor repair can be done.”

Thomas’s version of black nationalism began in opposition to white supremacy, and grew to be congruent with it.

Thomas is not merely a reactionary; or rather, he is a very specific type of reactionary. He is one committed to an ethno-separatism, a material and cultural self-reliance, but also to a project by which a history of racial humiliation is overcome not by dismantling the racist structures of society but precisely by enduring racial hostility with a masculine dignity, signaled by certain cardinal virtues and defended with arms. I will leave it to others to place that worldview precisely within the right-wing taxonomy. But the astonishing thing about Thomas’ later ideas is how much they owe to his earlier ideas:

“Thomas [initially] made his disaffection with civil rights activism with a narrative of black nationalism from the left. Beginning in the mid-1970s, that disaffection realigned for him as a story of black nationalism from the right. What’s remarkable about the transformation is how simple and small it proved to be.”

One way of understanding Thomas’s rightward trajectory is to treat it as a cautionary tale about the failures of the left, and about the future careers of disappointed radicals. By this account, Thomas is a black neocon, but nothing more. Robin however suggests something more disturbing. By his reading, Thomas did not convert so much as he simply changed denominations—left or right, the focus has always been on the nationalism. “Thomas has been able to forgo the left for the right without having to give up the black nationalism that can be found on either side of the spectrum.” In that case, his was not so much a metamorphosis as a change in emphasis.

If so, Thomas’s example may give us reason for worry about even the versions of nationalism with which we may feel some sympathy. “If Thomas begins from premises that are shared yet arrives at conclusions from which we recoil...,” Robin advises in the book’s final paragraph, then “the task at hand is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.” Among the premises to be surrendered, I would propose the fashionable pessimism about racial reconciliation, the deeply Christian view that oppression makes people virtuous, the moralistic emphasis (common to Protestantism, neoliberalism, and the “woke” left) on personal virtue as the tonic for societal problems, and the faith in violence as the surest safeguard for our rights.

There are also, of course, some premises that are not shared. The consistency of Thomas’ nationalism is only matched by that of his sexism—not merely as a matter of personal bias, but as a programmatic commitment to patriarchal gender norms. That has held true from his time in the Black Student Union to his tenure on the United States Supreme Court. Robin, I think, gives too little attention to this fact, and to its potential significance. How important was his sexism in guiding, and maybe even motivating, Thomas’s turn to the right?

It seems that Thomas’ conception of masculinity, while sounding increasingly anachronistic to the left, has become an animating principle across much of the right. Certainly, sexism remains a problem on the left, and the possibilities for a right-wing feminism cannot be discounted. But, broadly speaking, feminism implies egalitarianism, and right-wing politics imply the opposite. And it does seem that, of the various elements of the left’s program, gender equality is the one that the right has the hardest time claiming, co-opting, or corrupting. The reasons for that are undoubtedly complex and far-reaching, and the implications no less so. It may turn out, for example, that while nationalism can float between left and right, feminism will prove to be our most reliable anchor protecting against a rightward drift.

Bio:
Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde (all from AK Press).

Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

1 comments:

Esther said...

"feminism will prove to be our most reliable anchor protecting against a rightward drift." The anti-trans feminists of the world who collaborate with right-wingers might beg to differ.

Thank you for the thought-provoking essay, though.