Posted on June 26, 2013

Clarence Thomas: Race Traitor?

Keli Goff, The Root, June 25, 2013

One of the most destructive epidemics plaguing the black community for years is the notion that there is a specific way to “act black” versus “acting white.” The destructive part is the idea that acting white is synonymous with speaking grammatically correct English and having high academic achievement, while “acting black” is not.

Speaking as someone who, growing up, was told that I “talk white” on more than one occasion, I am certainly sensitive to how toxic and ridiculous this entire concept is. No singular group has ownership of a particular language, intellect or behavior, or even taste in certain types of music. {snip}

But there remains an inescapable question: Does acknowledging that the very idea of “acting white” versus “acting black” is offensive and destructive mean that we still don’t have the right to challenge someone’s emotional racial identity, based on his own destructive efforts to purposely distance himself from his community?

I found myself considering that question a lot today after the Supreme Court’s lone black justice, Clarence Thomas, sided with the majority in the court’s ruling on Shelby County v. Holder, a watershed voting-rights case. I am not the only one. Today Minnesota state Rep. Ryan Winkler referred to Thomas as “Uncle Thomas” in a tweet, an apparent reference to the term Uncle Tom. Winkler subsequently deleted the tweet and apologized.


Black Republicans like former Secretary of State Colin Powell have long been warmly embraced in communities of color, and in Powell’s case even long before he endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president. Those black conservatives who are embraced, however, from Powell to Joe Watkins, appear to share one commonality: Their commitment to the black community was never in question.

As black Republican consultant Raynard Jackson told me at the time, “The black Republicans who receive the most favorable treatment within our community are those who are actually engaged in our community. When you look at people like Mia Love, Allen West and J.C. Watts, most of these prominent black Republicans are not engaged within the black community in a significant way.”

But in the case of Thomas, the opposite is true. Not only has he never engaged with civil rights groups in a meaningful away–unlike Powell, who has a long-standing relationship with the United Negro College Fund–Thomas has spent much of his career attacking civil rights measures, measures from which he benefited.


Thomas’ vote on the voting-rights case helped set back the civil rights of people who look like him and inhabit the community from which he comes, immeasurably. Just as legendary attorney–and Supreme Court justice–Thurgood Marshall will forever be remembered for his triumph in advancing the civil rights of African Americans with his role in litigating Brown v. Board of Education, it is likely that Thomas will forever be remembered for his role in setting civil rights back with Shelby County v. Holder.

So the question becomes, does a lifelong commitment to actively setting back one’s race mean that one’s racial identity can fairly be challenged? To those offended by the very question, I ask you to consider the case of Daniel Burros. Burros was a Jewish American who became active in the American Nazi Party and Ku Klux Klan. When his religious identity was exposed, he committed suicide. Should Burros be associated with a group of people he so despised that he worked with others seeking to destroy them?


But perhaps the greatest shame will ultimately belong to Thomas, who will find his own legacy likely relegated to that of Burros, someone so consumed with ambivalence toward and loathing of his own community that he pushed himself further and further away from it until his own identity became invisible.