What Happened to Juan Williams?

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.

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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.

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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."

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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."

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That's the same sort of historical sleight of hand that another right-winger, Ward Connerly, used back in 1998 when he chose Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to announce a new phase in his crusade against affirmative action. "Dr. King personifies the quest for a color-blind society," Connerly claimed, "and I felt that it would be a great symbol to give birth to an organization that wants the nation to resume that journey on the birthday of the man who symbolizes it." 

There's not a shred of evidence that King would have agreed with Connerly's war on affirmative action. Nor is there anything but wild speculation to suggest that Malcolm X would have been a dyed-in-the-wool constitutional conservative like Thomas if he had realized his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. 

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Yet conservatives, like the one Juan seems to have become during his controversial stints at National Public Radio and Fox News, like to claim that militant figures like Malcolm and King would have backed right-wing causes that they spent their lives fighting, and they do this for one simple reason: Black conservatives have so few heroes of their own that they have to appropriate those of the left.

And in doing so, they often cherry-pick history, omitting facts that stand in the way of their glorious comparison. Lest we forget, some members of Congress are asking for an investigation of potential conflicts of interest involving Thomas' failure to report the $1.6 million that has wife has earned from various right-wing causes and her leading role in the Tea Party. Some have suggested that Thomas should recuse himself from the Supreme Court's consideration of Obama's health care reforms because of his wife's outspoken criticisms of the law.

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Somehow that issue did not make it into Juan's effort to remake Thomas into a black nationalist icon instead of the Uncle Tom that many blacks consider him to be. It's the kind of important omission that the journalist I befriended and respected would never have stood for. We haven't seen much of each other lately. I don't know what happened to him.

Jack White is a former Time magazine columnist and frequent contributor to The Root.

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is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.

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