Sunday, March 11, 2007

Thomas colorblind in his own mind

Thomas colorblind in his own mind
By Clarence Page a member of the Tribune's editorial board
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published March 11, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously declared that he could not define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. Justice Clarence Thomas does not define affirmative action in the same way that a lot of other people do, but he knows when he has not benefited from it.

He reveals that view and more in a rare and surprisingly expansive interview with Business Week senior writer Diane Brady, posted on the magazine's Web site.

Thomas has a reputation for saying little on the bench and even less to reporters. He granted this rare interview because Brady was writing an article about Thomas' beloved college mentor, Rev. John E. Brooks, former president of College of the Holy Cross.

Brooks' story is instructive. Back in 1968, when American cities were on fire with riots, assassinations and war demonstrations, Brooks was the prestigious Massachusetts college's academic dean who set out to recruit African-Americans.

To him, that meant doing something more than placing a want ad in the newspapers that said, "We're here." He personally went out to inner-city Catholic schools (most public schools turned him away, he says) and offered scholarships. He even drove some promising kids to the Worcester, Mass., campus to check it out. One of them was Edward P. Jones, who more recently authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Known World." "The fact that he had driven down from Massachusetts [to Jones' home in Washington, D.C.,] told me something in a very quiet way," Jones told the magazine.

That year the number of blacks entering the school of 650 soared to 28 from an average of about two per class. Brooks promised opportunities and scholarships to the youngsters but no special breaks or programs to ease their transition. He pushed them not only to meet, but also to exceed the high academic standards of the school.

Brooks, born in 1923, wanted to open the college to women too but was blocked until after he became president of the Jesuit school in 1970. "Jesuits, he argued, were supposed to educate leaders, and it was clear to him the pool of potential leaders was widening fast," Brady wrote.

Besides Thomas and Jones, that pioneer group also included Ted Wells, the National Law Journal's 2006 lawyer of the year and, more recently, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's attorney. Other alumni of that group include investment banker Stanley E. Grayson, a former New York City deputy mayor; and former pro football player Eddie J. Jenkins, who chairs the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

Today, Thomas is a fierce opponent of affirmative action while Wells, a co-chair of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Board of Directors, strongly defends it. Yet, like many of their classmates, both think the world of Brooks, and it is easy to see why. He did precisely what an ideal affirmative action plan is supposed to do. He was not satisfied with waiting for a diverse talent pool to come to him. He went out, found it and recruited it. Once they were enrolled, he kept an eye on them as he would with any other students, but by their own accounts left them largely to find their own way and succeed without special breaks.

Yet, when Brady asked him directly, Thomas was quick to deny that he benefited from affirmative action. "Oh, no," he said. "I was going to go home to Savannah," after he left a Missouri seminary, "when a nun suggested Holy Cross. That's how I wound up there," Thomas said.

"I was never recruited," he said. "The others were recruited. ... I just showed up, but somebody had to recognize it was a good place to be, and it was a Franciscan nun."

Fine. As I have often said, what's important in such matters is not how you got into college but how you leave. Affirmative action at its best opens doors, but it does not guarantee results. For that, you're on your own.

What concerns me more is Thomas' own enlistment policies. When he and Justice Anthony Kennedy testified in the high court's budget hearing last Thursday before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jose Serrano, a Democrat from New York, asked about the diversity of their clerks. Thomas expressed an odd sort of pride in his clerks' uniformity. "Mine happen to be all white males," he said of his current clerks. "I don't have quotas."

In other words, the sort of program Brooks followed to increase non-white enrollment at Holy Cross is precisely what Thomas has no intention to do with the Supreme Court's highly competitive clerk positions. I respect Thomas' view, but I prefer Brooks' idea.


Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board. E-mail:


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