Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a worthy target of criticism from the left: His reactionary jurisprudence, if carried out to its logical conclusion, would invalidate much of the socially progressive legislation of the last century. But liberals’ attacks on Thomas also have a tendency to focus impertinently and offensively on his person. The frequent jokes about Thomas not asking questions in court or being Justice Antonin Scalia’s “sock puppet” imply the justice is an unqualified quota hire. Last week the actor George Takei, best known for playing Hikaru Sulu in the original “Star Trek” series, made the subtext of this sort of criticism explicit when, while protesting Thomas’s rejection of marriage equality in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, he described Thomas as “a clown in blackface.”
Takei’s comments, which he subsequently apologized for, were patently racist. Blackface implies imposture and Thomas is, after all, a black man. But this isn't the only problem with Takei’s comments. In suggesting that Thomas is being inauthentic to his race, Takei is obscuring a critical issue we need to understand about Thomas’s actual positions in order to criticize them cogently.
It’s simply false to see Thomas as an inauthentic opportunist who has sold out fellow blacks. What makes Thomas a challenging figure is that he belongs to an important strain of African-American political thought, one that fuses radical black nationalism with conservative originalist jurisprudence. “Thomas believes that racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you’ll never be able to remove it,” the political scientist Corey Robin wrote in an important article last year in Jacobin. Thomas believes that blacks cannot rely on ameliorative liberal remedies and that programs like affirmative action are merely Band-Aids that are likely to lead to racism being re-formulated rather than destroyed.
Where Thomas differs from black radicals like Malcolm X, with whom he otherwise shares a bleak diagnosis of American society, is his lack of faith in collective efforts to create separate black institutions (although he doesn’t in principle oppose such institutions). Thomas instead preaches a doctrine of stoic individual endurance in the face of an irrevocably racist society. He has married traditional American individualism with black radicalism, offering as a model the self-made minority who pulls himself up by the bootstraps even when faced with persistent racism.
This approach can be seen in the very passage of Thomas’s Obergefell dissent that Takei took offense at: “[H]uman dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”
There is much to object to in this passage, which Jamil Smith cleanly demolished in The New Republic. Since Takei was in fact interned in 1942 for being a Japanese-American, he has more reason than most to take umbrage at Thomas’s use of the historical suffering of minority groups as a justification for denying marriage equality. Takei wrote a very smart column for MSNBC last week showing how blinkered Thomas’s arguments were. “To say that the government does not bestow or grant dignity does not mean it cannot succeed in stripping it away through the imposition of unequal laws and deprivation of due process,” Takei rightly argued.
But Takei spoiled the impact of his wise words by making the “blackface” comment. By turning the issue away from Thomas’s flawed jurisprudence and making this a debate about Thomas’s racial authenticity, Takei short-circuited an important argument. To deny the authenticity of Thomas’s blackness is to underestimate the genuine problems with the justice’s position. He has worked mightily to take a venerable and legitimate tradition in African-American thought and make it compatible with a conservative politics that, for good reason, most black Americans reject.