It was hardly a shocker last week when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court majority’s qualified support of affirmative action. Anyone who paid attention during Thomas’ Senate confirmation soap opera, or his subsequent career on the bench, had to suspect what his position was going to be. You can almost set your watch by the consistency of the man’s extreme conservatism.
But what did come as a bit of a shock was Justice Thomas’ decision to use the words of Frederick Douglass, the famous 19th century abolitionist and ex-slave, to support his reasons for frowning on affirmative action. This is some of the 1865 address to abolitionists that Thomas quoted:
“[I]n regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. ... And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! ... Your interference is doing him positive injury.’”
Thomas went on to say, “Like Douglass, I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators.” Although he expressed a sliver of understanding for affirmative action’s supporters, he nevertheless argued that “The Constitution does not, however, tolerate institutional devotion to the status quo in admissions policies when such devotion ripens into racial discrimination. ... A university may not maintain a high admission standard and grant exemptions to favored races. … Racial discrimination is not a permissible solution to the self-inflicted wounds of this elitist admissions policy.”
Like I said, it’s no longer a shocker that Thomas doesn’t support affirmative action — even though affirmative action got him into Yale and onto the Supreme Court. What’s surprising is how Thomas has become an expert at having it both ways. During his Senate confirmation hearings he presented himself as the victim of a “high-tech lynching”; I remember wondering how someone supposedly so determined to abandon the use of race as a crutch could drag up such an inflammatory image as his weapon of choice when things were looking dim.
So there Thomas sits, a beneficiary of affirmative action, warming the oversized seat once occupied by civil rights titan Thurgood Marshall, arguing that Frederick Douglass would not have approved of affirmative action. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Although it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Thomas’ logic out of hand — there is some merit to his belief that African-Americans had better read the writing on the wall and learn to depend less and less on the assistance of government — that logic is incomplete, even corrupt. Thomas’ argument wears thin when you consider Douglass’ quote in context.
For one thing, one of Douglass’ leading biographers would consider the quote an example of Douglass’ excessive — and short-lived — optimism as the Civil War approached its conclusion. Douglass, said William S. McFeely, was “more sensitive to the tone with which ... benevolence was to be bestowed than to the desperate need for assistance” on the part of newly freed slaves.
Elsewhere, writes McFeely: “In his zeal to see that freed people were not brushed aside as impotent victims, [Douglass] overlooked the damage slavery had done to many of them. ...”
And consider other quotes made by Douglass, such as this excerpt from “Reconstruction,” which was published in The Atlantic Monthly magazine a year after the address that Thomas cites:
“The people themselves demand such a reconstruction as shall put an end to the present anarchical state of things in the late rebellious States — where frightful murders and wholesale massacres are perpetrated in the very presence of Federal soldiers. This horrible business they require shall cease. They want a reconstruction such as will protect loyal men, black and white, in their persons and property: such a one as will cause Northern industry, Northern capital, and Northern civilization to flow into the South, and make a man from New England as much at home in Carolina as elsewhere in the Republic. … The South must be opened to the light of law and liberty, and this session of Congress is relied upon to accomplish this important work.
“The plain, common-sense way of doing this work is simply to establish in the South one law, one government, one administration of justice, one condition to the exercise of the elective franchise, for men of all races and colors alike. …Let sound political prescience but take the place of an unreasoning prejudice, and this will be done.”
In other words, Douglass was inviting a whole lot of interference to aid freed slaves.
Four years before the Atlantic article, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On the night of Dec. 31, 1862, the president declared that all slaves in areas not held by Union troops would be considered free as of the next day. As soon as Douglass got wind of that declaration he fought even harder for the right of blacks to serve in the Union army to fight for their country and their freedom at the same time.
In 1863, thanks to Douglass’ efforts, Congress authorized black enlistment in the Union army. The Massachusetts 54th Regiment was the first black unit to be formed and Douglass even assisted in the recruitment efforts. When it later became evident that the black troops were being discriminated against, Douglass met with Lincoln to try to resolve the problem.
And let’s look again at the Douglass passage that Thomas quoted: “And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! ... Your interference is doing him positive injury.”
Without government “interference,” the “negro” wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on, let alone two of them. Justice Thomas, of all Negroes, should know this.Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org