When it comes to the perils of affirmative action, there’s nobody as eloquent as Justice Clarence Thomas. In a speech given earlier this month to leaders of historically black colleges, Thomas went so far as to suggest the Constitution likely prohibits it: “I think we’re going to run into problems if we say the Constitution says we can consider race sometimes.” In both his legal writing and his autobiography, Thomas has railed against affirmative action, not simply because it constitutes “reverse discrimination” against white males, but because of the crushing lifelong stigma it affixes to the “beneficiaries” (a word Thomas puts in quotation marks).
Thomas’ writings on affirmative action frequently mine this vein of shame and stigma. In his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, he concedes he was admitted to Yale’s law school in part because of his race but then goes on to describe the humiliation of post-graduation interviews with “one high-priced lawyer after another” in which he was “asked pointed questions, unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated.” He told ABC News that “once it is assumed that everything you do achieve is because of your race, there is no way out. … It is irrebuttable and it is proved to be true. In everything now that someone like me does, there’s a backwash into your whole life … because of race.”
One can dispute whether Thomas’ impression of a “backwash” is fair or reasonable, but nobody can argue that his most passionate legal writing vibrates with his anger about it. In a sharp dissent in a 2003 case allowing race to be used as an admissions factor at the University of Michigan’s law school, Thomas described affirmative action as “a cruel farce” under which “all blacks are tarred as undeserving.” In an earlier case he wrote that such programs “stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority.”
Critics have scoffed at Thomas’ tendency to view affirmative action exclusively through the narrow lens of his own life, but it’s clear the “badge of inferiority” has tainted a lifetime of enormous achievement. He will never forgive America for the chances he was given, or for how small it has made him feel. I can’t help but wonder what Thomas would say to vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who is now suffering the same stigma of affirmative action, and who shows signs of the same blend of defensiveness and outrage that have so shaped Thomas’ career.
Like Thomas, Palin has been blasted for inexperience, and she has fought back with claims that she is not being judged on her merits, but on her gender, just as he felt he was inevitably judged on his race. While it’s possible to assert that Sarah Palin is the most qualified person in America for the vice presidency, only approximately nine people have done so with a straight face. That’s because Palin was not chosen because she was the second-best person to run America but to promote diversity on the ticket, even the political playing field, and to shatter (in her words) some glass ceilings. When she was selected, the Weekly Standard’s editor, Fred Barnes, enthused: “As a 44-year-old woman Mrs. Palin brings desperately needed diversity to the Republican ticket.” That’s certainly a noble goal, but it’s one most conservatives have disparaged for decades. The most savage bits of Thomas’ Michigan law school dissent warn against fetishizing “diversity” as an “aesthetic” concern of “elites.” Thomas hates the notion of flinging the first minority you can lay hold of at a glass ceiling. The McCain campaign just elevated it to priority No. 1.
The dangers of this kind of rough quest for aesthetic diversity pervades Thomas’ memoir. It’s not just his perception that the world mistrusts the abilities of the recipient of affirmative action but the fact that he sometimes learns to mistrust the world. Thomas’ experience at Yale taught him to doubt anyone who sought to help him, especially those “who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place.”
Palin has also become a recipient of the know-your-place treatment, as she enters—at this writing—her 29th day of an almost-total media blackout. Palin has been allowed to speak to just three television reporters. No press conferences and no informal interviews. A nation is permitted to know her almost exclusively through photo ops in fabulous shoes that smack of empty tokenism.
Clarence Thomas would say that in its most toxic formulation, affirmative action demands that its beneficiaries be seen and not heard, and that is precisely what Palin is experiencing. Where Clarence Thomas has always excoriated liberals for promoting token blacks so that America might someday look just like a Benetton commercial, John McCain has mastered the fine art of turning women into campaign accessories, a flag pin with nice calves.
Liberals inclined to blindly support affirmative action would do well to contemplate the lessons of Sarah Palin and Clarence Thomas. Although the former exudes unflagging self-confidence and the latter may always be crippled by self-doubt, both have become nearly frozen in a defensive crouch, casualties of an effort to create an America in which diversity is measured solely in terms of appearance.
Perhaps as a result of this simplistic sorting process, Clarence Thomas has learned to neatly divide the entire world into angels and demons. (In his book he reduces everyone to either a “rattlesnake” or a “water moccasin.”) Palin similarly casts everyone as either a supporter or a “hater.” Thomas has come to believe that anyone who opposes him is a racist. Palin genuinely sees anyone who doubts her qualifications as sexist. There is much that is laudable about affirmative action, but its tendency to divide people in often crude ways is not. It can lead to a class of “beneficiaries” who also see the world in crude ways, and to even-cruder ways of talking about the very complicated and real gender and race disparities that continue to plague America.
A version of this appears in this week’s Newsweek.