Memo To: Justice Clarence Thomas
From Jude Wanniski
Re: Your Friend Armstrong
If you missed the CNN "Crossfire" show last Tuesday, June 23, you should ask one of your clerks to retrieve a transcript from the Internet. The topic was your scheduled appearance before the National Bar Association of 17,000 black lawyers -- which generated controversy when former federal Judge Leon Higginbotham, a black jurist who always had a good press, led a move to get you disinvited. To tell you the truth, Mr. Justice, I was stunned when I read that Higginbotham has been so outraged by your votes at the High Court that he circulated a petition denouncing the NBA invitation and demanding that it be withdrawn. I could see a cheap politician doing this, or some campus hotheads, but a former federal judge? I was astounded.
I’m sure under normal circumstances you would not be interested in wasting a half hour of your life listening to Rep. John Conyers, the senior black Democrat from Michigan, denounce your record on the High Court because it does not suit his racial tastes. But our mutual friend, Armstrong Williams, was there to advocate on your behalf, and I must say you should be proud of him. Lined up against him in addition to Conyers was the regular liberal panelist Bill Press, who began the discussion this way: “Armstrong, let me be clear first of all that I don’t think Clarence Thomas should be disinvited. I think any organization that can hear Louis Farrakhan can hear Clarence Thomas. But my question to you is since Clarence Thomas time and time and time again on the court has ruled against the interest of African-Americans, why should be have been invited in the first place? Was that a mistake? To which Armstrong responded:
I don’t necessarily understand when you say the interest of African-Americans... Justice Thomas took an oath to defend the Constitution for all of Americans, not hyphenated Americans. He is not representative of any group. He is representative of all the people. I think it’s sad to assume because he happens to be an American who’s black it is assumed that he represents black people. I don’t think Antonin Scalia represents Italian Americans nor does Sandra Day O’Connor represent women. They represent the Constitution of the United States. The sad part of all this is that in the areas where we can see it physically like water fountains and other areas where blacks were denied that are now segregated, that many among the so-called black elite have not desegregated their minds. So what they do, they discriminate against Justice Thomas because he doesn’t think the way they choose for him to think. When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about his country and about America he said we should be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character -- and they’re holding Justice Thomas to a standard strictly because of the hue of his skin.
Bill Press wouldn’t let it rest at that, but threw at Armstrong three cases in which you cast your vote against a plaintiff who was black or black and poor. To which Armstrong replied: “Obviously, Justice Thomas was not the only person interpreting this decision. In fact, Justice Thomas cannot make a unanimous opinion by himself. It takes four people to be in the majority with him to constitute five to make a majority on that count. Your problem is you are trying to make him accountable -- you’re using the same argument that these racists use because of the fact that he is an American black. What if I were to hold you to a standard and say because you look white, there are certain things you should advocate. No, you’re not truly free. This man is free to advocate what he believes as long as he does it through the interpretation of the Constitution.”
When you speak to the National Bar Association, Justice Thomas, I think you should consider weaving Armstrong’s spontaneous theme into your address. He can say things that might sound cold coming from you directly. Yet it is the most powerful argument you can make. There is no question in my mind that your blackness weighs in your decisions, even if Judge Higginbotham or Congressman Conyers believe that if you “voted black” you would vote the way they would vote. If I were on the Supreme Court, there is no way I could divorce my opinion and perspective from my background, as a boy born to a Catholic coalminer in the depths of the Great Depression. When I saw you vote against the Line Item Veto last week, I felt that contact. The Congressional Black Caucus would agree with you on that vote, because they always saw the L.I.V. as a transfer of power away from an institution where they have some power to one where they have none, except for the kindness of white strangers who happen to inhabit the Oval Office.
How could these guys believe you would possibly cheapen the Supreme Court by giving an automatic vote to any plaintiff of color who showed up with a complaint of police brutality or a raw deal at the welfare or unemployment office? Black Americans did not struggle for 400 years to get equal footing with whites in a system protected by the Constitution only to get there after the Constitution had been shredded by Justices displaying compassion over critical judgement. Armstrong was not only logical in his defense of your integrity, he was passionate and powerful. A careful reading of the transcript will reveal that both Bill Press and John Conyers were impressed. Three cheers for Armstrong.