(The Root) — 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. (Yet although it is widely accepted that white teenage boys are among hip-hop's most loyal accolytes, an African American expressing love for rock music still seems to raise a surprised eyebrow in certain circles.)
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.
But Winkler is far from alone. A family member of mine had already used the term with me upon learning of the court's ruling. Thomas has been called that and much worse. There are conservatives, though, who argue that any African American who dares to defy the Democratic stereotype is automatically branded a sellout or Uncle Tom. My previous reporting on black Republicans found that is simply not the case.
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.
Though he has admitted that he stated his racial identification on his application to Yale Law School, he has been one of affirmative action's most vociferous opponents. In the Supreme Court's recent ruling in the Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case, Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia both suggested that diversity measures are unconstitutional, the very measures that gave Thomas his legal career and a seat on the Supreme Court.
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?
When asked by The Root about what the Shelby case will mean for Clarence Thomas' legacy, a spokesman for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund replied, "The legacy question is an excellent question, but it's broader than Clarence Thomas." He went on to explain that this ruling will represent a "shameful" moment for the court and will affect the Supreme Court's legacy accordingly.
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.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.