Thursday, November 8, 2007

Review of Justice Thomas Book

Not of the new autobiography, however. It's a review, just published in the liberal Commonweal magazine, of Kevin Merida's and Michael Fletcher's Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas, which was published seven months ago.

The review was written by Don Wycliff. Commonweal's website helpfully informs us that "Don Wycliff, a black man, is editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune." It's nice to be informed of that fact; otherwise, one might have assumed that Wycliff is white, as are the overwhelming majority of Commonweal's contributors.

In any event, it's a decent, albeit entirely uncritical, review. My main objections are to the opening paragraph:
His wrenching, soul-searing confirmation hearing notwithstanding, Clarence Thomas is so little known to most Americans that almost any decent biography of him would seem revelatory. Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher’s study of the man known as the “silent justice” of the U.S. Supreme Court is better than decent. It is deeply and carefully reported (though without the benefit of Thomas’s authorization or assistance), and written in measured, lucid, unbiased prose.
That "almost any decent biography" line seems a bit odd; it's as if Wycliff doesn't know that a much better and more thorough biography of Thomas was published several years ago (by Andrew Peyton Thomas).

Worse, the reviewer is overestimating the book's worth in that last sentence. As Orin Kerr points out:
I recently finished the book, and my take is mixed. The book's first half, which mostly covers Thomas's childhood and family, is pretty interesting. Merida & Fletcher interviewed tons of people, and the book offers lots information on Thomas that is hard to find elsewhere. The book goes downhill in the second half, which is more on Thomas as an adult and as a judge. Merida & Fletcher are not lawyers, and they tend to see conservative legal views as an expression of lack of sympathy for others. As a result, they get wrapped up in questions that will strike sophisticated readers as quite silly (such as, how could Justice Thomas be such a nice guy personally and yet endorse such uncaring views of the law?).
And as I've said before, the book's entire chapter on Thomas's silence at oral argument seems particularly unnecessary and unfair.

But enough bashing. The Commonweal review also makes some valuable points that are usually lost in the mainstream media:
Truth to tell, on some real political/judicial issues the gulf between Thomas and his prominent black critics is probably wider than that between Thomas and the ordinary black person. Take school desegregation and busing, for example. For most black people, there was a very practical logic behind school desegregation: The white majority will always make sure that their children receive what they need to get a proper education, so the best way to assure an equal education for black children is to make sure they are in the same schools and classrooms. At some point, however-and at least partly owing to the reasoning on which the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision was based-the established black leadership began speaking of desegregation and integration interchangeably, as an ideal to be celebrated for its own sake and worth pursuing regardless of the cost.

The cost, as often as not, was long bus trips for black children in pursuit of fleeing whites. If segregating black children because their race inflicted a sense of inferiority so grievous as to be, in the words of the Brown decision, “unlikely ever to be undone,” what would be the effect of chasing whites over ever-greater distances in the interest of an integrated-and thus, putatively equal-education? (Whites were, more often than not, able to arrange things so that their children did not have to ride those buses.)

Thomas considers that sort of thing foolish and he said as much when Ben Carson, the famous black neurosurgeon, confronted him on some of his controversial views. “I had heard what everyone else had: ‘This guy is a sellout. He doesn’t care about black issues,’” Carson told Merida and Fletcher. “But as I got to know him, I saw this was a complete lie.”

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