Affirmative Action

by Maureen Dowd 



What a cunning man Clarence Thomas is. He knew that he could not make a powerful legal argument against racial preferences, given the fact that he got into Yale Law School and got picked for the Supreme Court thanks to his race.

So he made a powerful psychological argument against what the British call "positive discrimination," known here as affirmative action.

Thomas' dissent in the 5-to-4 decision preserving affirmative action in university admissions has persuaded me that affirmative action is not the way to go.

The dissent is a clinical study of a man who has been driven barking mad by the beneficial treatment he has received. It's poignant, really. It drives him crazy that people think he is where he is because of his race, but he is where he is because of his race.

Other justices rely on clerks and legal footnotes to help with their opinions; Thomas relies on his id, turning an opinion on race into a therapeutic outburst.

In his dissent, he snidely dismisses the University of Michigan Law School's desire to see minority faces in the mix as "racial aesthetics," giving the effort to balance bigotry in society the moral weight of a Benetton ad. The phrase "racial aesthetics" would be more appropriately applied to President George W. Bush's nominating convention in Philadelphia, when the Republicans put on a minstrel show for the white fat cats in the audience.

Thomas scorns affirmative action as "a faddish slogan of the cognoscenti." Quoting Frederick Douglass on the "Negro" 140 years ago, he urges: "'All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! …Your interference is doing him positive injury.'"

He is at the pinnacle, an African American who succeeded in getting past the Anita Hill sexual harassment scandal by playing the race card, calling the hearing "a high-tech lynching." So why, despite his racial blessings, does he come across as an angry, bitter, self-pitying victim?

It's impossible not to be disgusted at someone who could benefit so much from affirmative action and then pull up the ladder after himself. So maybe he is disgusted with his own great historic ingratitude.

When he switched from Democrat to a conservative as a young man, he knew that he would be a hotter commodity in politics. But he also knew that it would bring him the scorn of blacks who deemed him a pawn of the white establishment - people like Justice Thurgood Marshall, who ridiculed Clarence Thomas and others as "goddamn black sellouts" for benefiting from affirmative action and then denigrating it.

As Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer write in "Strange Justice," Thomas himself complained in a 1987 speech that, to win acceptance in conservative ranks, "a black was required to become a caricature of sorts, providing sideshows of anti-black quips and attacks." (Just as blonde conservative pundettes flash long legs and sneer at feminism.)

When Thomas was nominated by the first President Bush with the preposterous claim that he was "the best qualified" man for the job, Republican Party strategists diverted attention away from the judge's scant credentials and controversial record by pushing his inspiring life story, grandson of a sharecropper and son of a Georgia woman who picked the meat out of crabshells.

But it's as if Thomas has been swallowed by his own personal drama, just as Bob Dole and Bob Kerrey were swallowed by their gripping personal dramas on the presidential campaign trail. Thomas is so blinded by his own autobiography he can no longer focus on bigger issues of morality and justice. having used his personal story to get on the court, he is now left to worry that his success is not personal enough.

George W. Bush, the Yale legacy who also disdains affirmative action, is playing affirmative action politics in the preliminary vetting of a prospective Supreme Court nominee, Alberto Gonzales. No doubt Bush will call Gonzales the best qualified man for the job, rather than the one best qualified to help harvest the 2004 Hispanic vote.

Bush and Thomas have brought me around. I don't want affirmative action. I want whatever they got.