What Happened to Juan Williams?

RightWatch: He's been transformed from courageous journalist to apologist for Clarence Thomas.

Juan Williams interviewing President George Bush in 2007

This is a painful story to write because I've considered Juan Williams a friend since we covered Jesse Jackson's first presidential campaign back in 1984, when Juan was with the Washington Post and I was with Time magazine. 

We attended the same Episcopal church in Washington before I moved to Richmond, Va., a few years ago, and my wife and I were guests at his daughter's wedding reception. Most important, I admire much of his work, especially his history of the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize, and his magisterial biography Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, which I praised in a book review for its warts-and-all portrait of the first black Supreme Court justice.

That's why reading the ludicrous piece comparing Marshall's successor on the court, Clarence Thomas, to Malcolm X that Juan posted on The Root earlier this week made me so sad. It made me wonder what had become of the journalist I had known and respected for his careful analysis and courageous willingness to examine the unpleasant facts about the most sacred black icons. 

Juan, for example, was one of the first to pull the covers off the corrupt administration of Washington, D.C.'s former mayor for life, Marion Barry. And as I noted in my review of Juan's biography of Marshall, he did not back away from recounting the great civil rights lawyer's ruthless role in driving the legendary scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, out of the organization because of his ties to communists.

Would that Juan had shown similar integrity in his hero-worshipping screed about Thomas, which, to be charitable, reflects a highly selective reading of Thomas' two decades on the high court. Nothing in Juan's piece reflects the mean-spiritedness -- or internal contradictions -- in Thomas' ultraconservative jurisprudence that has so alarmed civil rights lawyers and activists. 

To cite only one example, Juan says nothing about the blatant inconsistencies in Thomas' use of psychological theories to support his conclusions. In 1995 Thomas attacked the logic of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in his concurring opinion on Missouri v. Jenkins, in which the court overturned a federal judge's order that the state continue to fund "magnet" schools in Kansas City because test scores at predominantly black schools were lagging behind those of whites.

The judge, Thomas wrote, had misinterpreted previous court rulings -- including Brown -- "to support the theory that black students suffer an unspecified psychological harm from segregation that retards their mental and educational development. This approach not only relies upon questionable social-science research rather than constitutional principle, but it also rests on an assumption of black inferiority."

But at about the same time, Thomas took exactly the opposite position about questionable social science in the case of Adarand Constructors v. Peña, in which the court suggested that federal set-aside programs for minority contractors may be unconstitutional. Wrote Thomas, "These programs stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are entitled to preferences."

Say what? Centuries of racist oppression may not have inflicted psychological harm upon blacks, but a few decades of affirmative action and set-asides stamped them with a badge of inferiority and made them dependent on government largesse? In Thomas' world, the only whites who have hurt us are liberals.

I'm not sure if Juan considers himself to be a conservative, but he shares some of their habits. Like them, in this article, he turns history on its head by suggesting that "Malcolm X on the Supreme Court might look a lot like Justice Thomas: seeking racial equality as a matter of original constitutional protections for all citizens and not on the basis of integration, affirmative action, busing or other race-based remedies."