Media Beat, June 21, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Clarence Thomas: Affirmative Action Success Story

There is something unseemly about a guy who has just built a house on the beach and is now leading the charge to stop all further beach-front construction.

Or a recent immigrant who climbs the soapbox to call for a halt to further immigration.

Or a beneficiary of affirmative action programs who climbs the ladder of success by attacking affirmative action.

That kind of unseemliness was demonstrated this month by Justice Clarence Thomas. But few reporters took note -- even though it should be the media's job to spotlight hypocrisy.

Thomas cast the deciding vote in the Supreme Court's 5-to-4 decision to narrow federal affirmative action programs. But Thomas went beyond even fellow conservatives on the bench -- he argued for an immediate end to affirmative action.

There's an obvious contradiction here: Clarence Thomas benefited enormously from the kind of affirmative action programs he now seeks to kill.

Indeed, Thomas' rise from his dirt-poor upbringing in rural Georgia into an elite Ivy League law school is an affirmative action success story. But don't take our word for it. Take his.

In a November 1983 speech to his staff at the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, Thomas called affirmative action ''critical to minorities and women in this society.''

Then, his remarks got personal: ''But for them (affirmative action laws), God only knows where I would be today. These laws and their proper application are all that stand between the first 17 years of my life and the second 17 years.''

As an undergraduate at Holy Cross College, Thomas received a scholarship set aside for racial minorities. He was admitted to Yale Law School in 1971 as part of an aggressive (and successful) affirmative action program with a clear goal: 10 percent minority enrollment. Yale offered him generous financial aid.

Affirmative action can't guarantee success, but it can open doors previously closed to women and people of color. The rest is up to those who walk through the doors.

By all accounts, Thomas was a hard worker who studied long hours. But his place at Yale Law School -- his key to later success -- was opened by a race-conscious admissions program, the kind he is now intent on outlawing.

After this month's Supreme Court decision, few news outlets explored the sharp contrast between Clarence Thomas' obsession with destroying affirmative action and his own personal history.

One wonders what Thomas believes about his past. Maybe he prefers the fairy-tale account provided by Rush Limbaugh, whose talk show he listens to each day: ''Clarence Thomas escaped the bonds of poverty by methods other than those prescribed by these civil rights organizations.''

The truth is that Thomas owes thanks to the civil rights movement -- whose decades of lawsuits, protests and lobbying removed barriers for individuals like Thomas. Yet he seems to relish his role as one of the movement's main enemies.

Since the early 1980s, Thomas' career soared thanks to a perverse form of racial preference. It was his race, as Thomas has admitted, that got him two civil rights posts in the Reagan White House; the jobs came because he opposed the civil rights movement. So did his boss, President Ronald Reagan, whose opposition dated back to the years of Martin Luther King Jr.

President Bush -- who, like Reagan, had opposed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act -- later chose Thomas to fill the Supreme Court seat of civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall, the only other African-American to sit on the highest court.

In his recent Supreme Court opinion blasting affirmative action, Thomas could find no moral difference between ''laws designed to subjugate a race'' and laws that benefit a race ''in order to foster some current notion of equality.''

Thomas went on to complain that affirmative action programs stigmatize the beneficiaries -- an argument not raised by the plaintiff in the case, a white building contractor who says he unfairly lost federal work to a Latino-owned business.

Responding to Thomas, Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out that if beneficiaries of affirmative action feel stigmatized, they can simply ''opt out of the program.''

It's worth considering. If Thomas feels traumatized or stigmatized for having benefited from affirmative action, he could give back his law diploma.

Such a move would be absurd -- since Thomas earned his degree by studying hard and passing all required exams.

Even more absurd, though, is Thomas' current mania for closing doors to others that the civil rights movement helped open for him.

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