Clarence Thomas, the longest serving justice of the supreme court, is Donald Trump’s favourite judge. He is also, along with Brett Kavanaugh, one of the few members of the court most of us have heard of – mainly due to the accusations brought against both men by women. Apart from his association with law professor Anita Hill – who in 1991 made allegations of sexual harassment against him – Thomas is known in the US for his silence on the bench, but what Corey Robin argues in this superb book is that, even when he does speak, no one hears what he has to say.
A conservative with an almost visionary faith in the morality of capitalism, Thomas is also a black nationalist. America, Robin argues, “has seen black conservatives. It has seen black nationalists. It has seen conservative black nationalists. It has never seen a conservative black nationalist on the Supreme Court.” Thomas’s politics are based on his belief that the state can do nothing for African Americans other than perpetuate an underclass and that positive discrimination can only disable black men (there is no room in Thomas’s “dreamscape”, as Robin puts it, for black women).
Robin is a left-leaning political theorist with an interest in the reactionary mind and Thomas, a figure of bottomless complexity, is thus his ultimate challenge. Like all the best biographies The Enigma of Clarence Thomas aims to reveal the inner workings of its subject, and Robin achieves this not by trawling through Thomas’s private life and talking to his colleagues but by anatomising his 700 authored opinions, including those on abortion, gun rights and campaign financing. Placing his judicial opinions at the centre of his black nationalism, and his black nationalism at the centre of his identity as a black man, Robin makes what he calls Thomas’s “invisible justice visible”, and in doing so he reveals the invisibility of Thomas himself. Robin takes for his epilogue the words of the unnamed black protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
The man Robin brings into focus “has chosen to express himself and his politics through a medium that puts severe constraints on how that politics and self may be expressed”. Robin himself, however, expresses Thomas’s politics with a consistent clarity and as much impartiality as he can muster: “His beliefs are disturbing, even ugly; his style is brutal. I want to make us sit with that discomfort rather than swat it away.” By maintaining his authorial distance, Robin creates the impression of not hearing so much as overhearing Thomas’s thought process.
Born in Pinpoint, Georgia in 1948, Thomas was raised by his grandparents when his mother, a maid, could no longer afford to look after her three children. Thomas’s biological father left when he was two, and was thereafter referred to by him as “C”; his mother was known as “Pigeon”. His grandfather, Myers Anderson, who Clarence called Daddy, was a self-employed businessman whose own grandfather had been a slave. Anderson, who ran a successful fuel oil business and a set of rental homes, was, Thomas said, “the greatest man I have ever known” and it was Daddy who provided the model for his later paternalistic vision of the black man as protector of and provider for the family.
Thomas described in his memoir, A Grandfather’s Son, how Anderson “loomed over us like a dark behemoth, instilling fear and demanding absolute adherence to all his edicts, however arbitrary they might appear to be”. Accepting government aid, Anderson counselled, meant giving up your manhood and he would “prefer to starve to death first”. Depending on government handouts, he further explained, is “a more deceptive” form of slavery. The clarity of Jim Crow was preferable to the mush of liberalism, because hardship and struggle are better for the black man’s sense of self than the culture of dependence and condescension. From his grandfather, Thomas learned not only the value of self-sufficiency but the importance of money. It will be through capitalism rather than the ballot box, Thomas believes, that the black American will be freed. Electoral politics can only confirm white power, but money can allow a man to speak and be heard. The Thomas revealed by Robin is a prophet of pessimism whose America is a place of “men armed to the teeth, people locked up in jails, money ruling all, and racial conflict as far as the eye can see”.
Raised a Catholic, Thomas’s nickname in the playground was “ABC”, short for “America’s Blackest Child”. “If he were any blacker,” his classmates jeered, “he’d be blue.” From school he went on to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he majored in English literature, founded the black student union and learned by heart the speeches of Malcolm X.
After graduating from Yale law school in 1974, Thomas read Richard Sowell’s Race and Economics and swerved to the right. What is striking about his conversion, as Robin describes it, is that the militancy of his youth remained unaltered. When Thomas joined the Reagan administration in 1981 he was the same black nationalist as before. The programme of black self-sufficiency that he embraced at Holy Cross remained the bedrock of his politics and he set out his vision in the Atlantic Monthly: “There is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are – you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”
It was in Washington, as chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that Thomas encountered Hill, whose accusations of sexual harasment were made 10 years later, in 1991. Because Robin is interested in what we don’t know about Thomas rather than what we do, he does not rehearse the details of Hill’s testimony before the judiciary committee. Robin casts doubt on Thomas’s account to the Senate, and details his argument in a chapter explaining the judge’s views on black paternalism. Thomas regarded Hill’s accusations, which he denied, and the subsequent media attention as a form of lynching. “I have been harmed worse than I have ever been harmed in my life,” he said of the Hill hearing. “I wasn’t harmed by the Klan, I wasn’t harmed by the Knights of Camelia, I wasn’t harmed by the Aryan race, I wasn’t harmed by a racist group. I was harmed by this process which accommodated these attacks.”
The attack on his masculine authority confirmed what he had long suspected about the disempowerment of black men. The father, Thomas says, is “the founder, the originator, the leader”, the “setter of standards”, the “setter of direction” and “the setter of rules”. Thomas considers the effects of being raised without a father figure, Robin argues, to be “devastating”. His own mother would have been “a disaster, unable to provide the structure, the hard rules and firm authority” that his grandfather was able to supply. “To stay there,” Thomas says, “would have doomed me to a dismal life of ignorance, perhaps even of crime – a life lost before it started.” His sister Emma, raised by an aunt, is a case in point: “She isn’t educated. She works in the crab factory, picking crabs, just like my mother did. My brother is a comptroller of a Sheraton Hotel in Chicago. He’s got an accounting degree. And my grandfather is responsible for that.”
Blind to the inequality that ensures the future of boys is worth more than that of girls, and indifferent to the importance of caregiving, Thomas holds fast to his belief that “the salvation of our race” depends on “the strength and the will of black men”. The women in his dreamscape remain invisible. After reading this bold and original book, Thomas appears less of an enigma than a paradox hiding in plain sight.
• The Enigma of Clarence Thomas is published by Metropolitan (£22.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.