Why Barack Owes Clarence Thomas

Thomas' conservatism destroyed the 'unity myth' that all black Americans were the same politically and ideologically. Partisan politics aside, that was a good thing, and we should give credit where it is due.

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Lately, I've had the most spirited debates with my students and friends, and I always come away feeling like the loser.

I, for argument's sake, draw a straight line between Barack Obama's White House aspirations and the embarrassing spectacle of Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation.

As soon as I dare utter "Thomas" in the same breath as "Obama," I'm often hooted into silence. Just the mere mention of the justice's name is a conversation stopper, except when it serves to start a separate argument.

But my reasoning is sound.

Let's set aside partisan politics for a moment and examine the facts. (I know…I know…that's damned near impossible to do whenever Clarence Thomas is a part of the discussion, but hang with me for a few more paragraphs.)

Since the end of the '60s, Republicans have dominated the White House and since the middle '90s they've pretty much held sway in Congress and on the Supreme Court. That's given rise to some fairly prominent black Republicans such as Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Contemporary televised images of Thomas, Powell and Rice have bounced around the globe so much that almost nobody remarks upon the fact that for two decades African Americans have wielded global power—for good or evil—on behalf of the United States. It has also made thousands of white Americans less fearful of black leaders.

Granted, an image of the GOP version of a black leader is a far cry from the stereotypical notion of black leaders—self-serving preachers in the clutches of left-leaning Democrats. But such stereotypes were never the whole truth.

History proves that Thomas' appointment and the public spectacle of his hearing, followed by his installation and rulings from the High Court, constitute the most significant development in U.S. race relations since the end of the civil rights movement.

And, as if I needed establishment support for this opinion, I have read a recent Washington Post article that supports this view. (Of course, citing something printed in the mainstream media can be the beginning—or end—of yet another argument, depending on the student or friend.) The Post story collected some thoughts of leading historians about Obama's place in history.