Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 23, 2019

Clarence Thomas’s “Black nationalism”: a reply to Corey Robin

Filed under: Black nationalism — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

I had no plans to review Corey Robin’s new book about Clarence Thomas’s supposed Black nationalism, especially since I had devoted far too much time to reading and writing this year about Max Blumenthal’s “Management of Savagery’ and Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Utopia”, two other problematic works. But when I read a review of “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas” in BookForum, I decided to offer some alternative interpretations of Thomas’s career especially since Robin has linked him to Malcolm X in a 2014 Jacobin article:

Racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you also have to dig deep in order to see its full extent. The deeper you dig, the closer you get to its beating heart. The overt bigotry of the South is merely the surface; its true depths are to be found in the North. Not among the angry white faces throwing rocks in South Boston, but in the genteel white smiles of liberal institutions like Yale Law School, which Thomas attended.

In his memoir, which came out in 2007, Thomas described the difference thus:

At least southerners were up front about their bigotry; you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so the paternalistic big-city [northern and liberal] whites who offered you a helpful hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place. Like the water moccasin, they struck without warning.

If you’re hearing a distant echo in that comment, you should. Think back to that famous passage in Malcolm X’s “Chickens Come Home to Roost” speech:

The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.

Now I have no idea whether Robin deals with Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia (aka, Ginnni) in his book but I wonder if any Black nationalist—reactionary or revolutionary—would be married to a staff writer for The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s magazine. Among the people who have written for The Daily Caller is Jason Kessler who organized the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Another contributor to Carlson’s rag is Peter Brimelow, the founder of VDARE, a nativist and racist website that has published Steve Sailer. Writing for Taki’s white supremacist magazine, Sailer complained:

As the years roll on through the Obama Era and the evidence accumulates that the failure of blacks to catch up has less and less to do with white racism, the American media has become increasingly obsessed with pounding the drums over the sins of white people’s forefathers in the ever more distant past.

It turns out that this is not too far from Clarence Thomas’s brand of Black nationalism. Thomas does not blame white racism as responsible for Black oppression. Instead, it is Black people failing to become self-sufficient through old-fashioned entrepreneurialism that is the problem.

If you study the history of Black politics in the USA, you will see a tendency toward the same sort of thing the Nation of Islam was involved with in the sixties (and maybe still is, for all I know.) They sold bean pies and newspapers to help fund their mosques where denunciations of white racism were made by leaders like Malcolm X.

The difference between the Nation of Islam and Booker T. Washington self-help philosophy was paper-thin, Without the Nation’s pseudo-Islamic veneer and empty calls for separatism, Washington’s National Negro Business League—an early version of Richard Nixon’s call for Black capitalism—was based on Black people lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps. Washington operated out of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama.

In a 44-page article titled “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism”, Notre Dame law professor Stephen S. Smith covers the same ground as Robin but from a positive angle. Thomas’s opposition to affirmative action and other rightwing legal decisions demonstrated his “revolutionary” principles rather than marking him as a reactionary, like the liberal Corey Robin does. Among his “nationalist” Supreme Court rulings, according to Smith, was one that protected schools like Tuskegee from becoming integrated with other colleges in the South that had operated up until 1962 on a de jure [by law] segregation basis. The courts had concluded after the 1962 ruling, segregation had continued on a de facto basis. Thomas argued that even if this were the case, it was best to maintain the status quo in order to make sure that Tuskegee and other schools kept going. If this has something to do with Black nationalism, it escapes me.

As I stated above, I have no intention of reading Robin’s book. The goal of this article is only to alert those who do to keep a critical attitude. Let me conclude, however, with some thoughts on a long piece that Robin wrote for The New Yorker recently that encapsulates his approach.

Early on, Robin identifies his Big Idea:

On the Court, Thomas continues to believe—and to argue, in opinion after opinion—that race matters; that racism is a constant, ineradicable feature of American life; and that the only hope for black people lies within themselves, not as individuals but as a separate community with separate institutions, apart from white people.

It is not exactly clear where Robin got this notion of a “separate community” since Stephen S. Smith quotes to just the opposite effect from Thomas’s memoir My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir: “I never went along with the militant separatism of the Black Muslims, but I admired their determination to ‘do for self, brother,’ as well as their discipline and dignity….” As for “do for self” is concerned, that could apply to practically any Black millionaire, including Kanye West, a Trump fan.

We learn that when he was a student at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1971, Thomas helped organize the Black Student Union. Robin describes the program of the BSU, which stipulates that “The Black man does not want or need the white woman. The Black man’s history shows that the white woman is the cause of his failure to be the true Black man.” Evidently, this did not get in the way of him hooking up with Ginni. Robin observes, “Until 1986, when Thomas met Virginia Lamp, who is white and would become his second wife, he opposed interracial sex and marriage.” In making this decision, he must have seen her devotion to the Reagan revolution as far outweighing her white skin.

On the Malcolm X question, Robin points to his poster on Thomas’s dorm room and his collection of records of Malcolm’s speeches as proof of his early absorption of Black nationalist politics. Indeed, on the eve of his being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991, Thomas stated, “I don’t see how the civil-rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own. Where does he say black people should go begging the Labor Department for jobs? He was hell on integrationists. Where does he say you should sacrifice your institutions to be next to white people?”

As head of Reagan’s Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), Thomas made sure to respect his boss’s racist opposition to any government action that would put an end to white-only hiring practices. One of Thomas’s policies that helped undermine any serious assault on racist or sexist hiring practices was no longer allowing class action suits against employers. The LA Times reported in 1991, just as his nomination to the Supreme Court was being considered:

Thomas was rebuked by 43 congressmen when he abandoned the agency’s traditional reliance on class-action lawsuits in favor of individual cases. In a clear manifestation of Thomas’ philosophy, the switch represented a move away from the notion that classes of people are affected by discrimination and an emphasis on individual cases in which discrimination has been proven.

“I continue to believe that distributing opportunities on the basis of race or gender, whoever the beneficiaries, turns the law against employment discrimination on its head,” he wrote in a 1987 Yale Law Review article. “Class preferences are an affront to the rights and dignity of individuals.”

As part of the move away from class-action suits, employers found guilty of discrimination were no longer required to establish goals and timetables for hiring more workers from the affected group, such as blacks or women.

The goals issue was debated hotly within the commission. But Thomas prevailed by arguing that workers not affected directly by discrimination should not be helped.

Something tells me that Malcolm X would have had little sympathy for a measure that put Black people at a disadvantage when it came to being eligible for jobs other than sweeping the factory floor or cleaning the toilets. Of course, by 1991 this was not exactly the sort of thing Thomas had to put up with himself even if he suffered from extreme poverty when very young.

Repeating the business about Black nationalism being based on appreciating the KKK for its candor, etc. at the beginning of this article, Robin cites Marcus Garvey to the same effect:

 In making sincerity the litmus test of American racism, Thomas took a strand of the black nationalism that influenced his early development and wove it into an entire philosophy of race. In the nineteen-twenties, at an especially acute moment of racist reaction in the United States, Marcus Garvey also found comfort in the promise of candor. “They are better friends to my race for telling us what they are, and what they mean, than all the hypocrites put together,” Garvey said, of the Ku Klux Klan. “I like honesty and fair play.”

As long as he was bringing up Marcus Garvey, you might have hoped that he’d have connected the dots between the movements founded by Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad. All of them were based on the idea of self-sufficiency. Garvey read Washington’s “Up from Slavery” and became convinced that Black-owned enterprises were needed, including an “industrial farm” modeled on the Tuskegee Institute.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, the Black Panthers were showing what Black nationalism really meant. It wasn’t about bean pies, “industrial farms” or abolishing class-action law suits against racist corporations. It was about Black control of the Black community, especially replacing the cops with armed community militias.

Returning to the BookForum review of Robin’s book that prompted this post, the question of armed self-defense crops up:

Robin’s interpretation is useful in accounting for some of Thomas’s seeming contradictions. Though not always a champion of individual rights, Thomas is attached to the Second Amendment because a right to bear arms is crucial for an embattled minority in an incorrigibly racist state.

After reading this, I decided to research Thomas and write this article since it seemed to be so unlikely that a rightwing slug like Clarence Thomas would invoke Robert F. Williams or Huey Newton when it came to justifying owning semi-automatic rifles. Everything told me that it was constitutional “originalism” of the Antonin Scalia variety that was responsible for Thomas’s rulings.

After the Parkland Massacre, the Supreme Court ruled that a 10-day waiting period for purchasing a weapon in California was legal. Thomas was the sole dissenter. You can read his opinion here. If you can find any reference to an “an embattled minority in an incorrigibly racist state”, I’ll make a fifty dollar contribution to the Bernie Sanders campaign in your name.

For that matter, a search for “Clarence Thomas and Second Amendment and racist” turned up nothing in Lexis-Nexis as well. Maybe Robin found something to back that up. If you read his book and come across it, drop me a line.


  1. You’d think that anyone who researched Thomas’ life and wrote a book about it would conclude that his “black nationalism” is easily harmonized with the perpetuation of white supremacy in the US. But in Robin’s case, apparently not.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 27, 2019 @ 4:20 am

  2. Louis, you are missing the mark by a long shot, regrettably.

    Let’s break this statement apart:

    If you study the history of Black politics in the USA, you will see a tendency toward the same sort of thing the Nation of Islam was involved with in the sixties (and maybe still is, for all I know.) They sold bean pies and newspapers to help fund their mosques where denunciations of white racism were made by leaders like Malcolm X. The difference between the Nation of Islam and Booker T. Washington self-help philosophy was paper-thin, Without the Nation’s pseudo-Islamic veneer and empty calls for separatism, Washington’s National Negro Business League—an early version of Richard Nixon’s call for Black capitalism—was based on Black people lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps. Washington operated out of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama.

    Totally wrong on multiple counts.

    First, the NOI was a post-WWII socio-political development. Its theology was a religiously-defined internationalist one, premised upon the idea of the unity of what they described as the “Afro-Asiatic man” in the struggle against white supremacy. It wasn’t exactly the Comintern anti-colonial line but it called for the same principles of unity. The call for separatism was based on self-defense and a logical conclusion, that so-called white people were prone to mob violence and pogroms like lynchings on a regular basis. The idea of an “Afro-Asiatic man” are roughly approximate to the articulation of what we describe as workers in the Global South. Very little difference (excepting perhaps some novel quirks that are attendant any syncretic religious formation).

    By contrast Washington was not just a but THE accommodationist Black mis-leader. He was the grand overseer of the 1895 Atlanta compromise that allowed the consolidation of Black Reconstruction’s total defeat and the institution of Jim Crow. Du Bois blamed the 1906 Atlanta pogrom on the compromise.

    The NOI would have never and never has participated in anything remotely close to granting white nationalists a license to rampage in their communities, quite the opposite, in fact Malcolm X and Farrakhan both have videos on YouTube promoting militant community defense (sometimes to the point of self-destruction, as the COINTEL-PRO disclosures have shown).

    Washington’s vocational education program that posed no threat to white supremacy is absolutely different from the NOI’s fundraising activities because Tuskegee was never a target of COINTEL-PRO.

    How or what one makes of the way Thomas is being treated in the press needs to be understood in a wider context. Currently there is a media campaign to smear and de-legitimize the Black Radical Tradition, a re-statement of Marxian liberatory praxis centered on the ideas of Du Bois, CLR James, and Richard Wright as a critique of political economy where racism and colonialism is a central as opposed to auxiliary element of capital’s genesis. Or alternatively this could be because of a rather simplistic misreading of Thomas that is divorced from reality because of blatant contradictions that these white writers don’t have the brilliance to consider on their path of struggle towards fame and fortune with the NYC cocktail party liberal clique.

    Comment by stew312856 — September 29, 2019 @ 5:56 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: