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.
This quote by David Nasaw, a City University of New York historian, made me pause:
"When Strom Thurmond ushered Clarence Thomas [then a nominee to become the second black person on the Supreme Court] and his white wife into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room…that signaled that something was happening in American culture."
That's exactly what I'm talking about, and precisely what I've been arguing for several years with students in my race, politics and pop culture classes and with friends in my barbershop. The difficult part of this argument for my friends to swallow is that they hear me giving Clarence Thomas credit for a positive development in the race-and-cultural changes transforming our country.
But you must give the Devil his due. The fact of the matter is, Thomas proves that some black Americans aren't liberal and don't march in lock-step with the Democrats.
Indeed, the myth of black American unity has a powerful hold on our self-image. But that's as real as unicorns and leprechauns. At no point in history have black folks—for that matter, any group of whites, women, Jews or whatnot—been united as a cohesive force with a single purpose or method to achieving any social goal.
This wasn't true during the heyday of the civil rights movement, when older, more conservative, Southern black preachers tried to ignore the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom they feared was too radical and would bring the wrath of the KKK upon their flocks. It wasn't true during the late '60s when militant black organizations failed to win the hearts and minds of masses of black people, even as they captured media headlines and scared the crap out of whites.
But, for some reason, this stillborn hope for black unity has followed black Americans like a storm cloud hovering above a Freedom Day picnic.
Largely because he was black and conservative and affluent and educated and Republican, Thomas drove a stake through the heart of the ignorant assumptions about all black folks: liberal and poor and dumb and Democrats. After him, there's no denying that some black folks aren't on the Democrats' reservation.
(I especially remember the shocked expressions of white colleagues who couldn't believe there were so many black, Yale-educated, Republicans working at that time in the Bush administration.)
Indeed, the nasty Thomas affair ripped away the façade of racial unity that so many white people assumed and so many black folks wanted white folks to assume. There's power in sustaining myths.
But if there's to be a President Obama, then all bets are off. Everything we thought immutable about America will have changed and, indeed, it should.
Whether you like it—or him—Clarence Thomas deserves credit—or blame—for reshaping popular notions of what it means to be black and American. And, win or lose in November, Obama is already an historic beneficiary.
Sam Fulwood III is a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and lecturer at Case Western Reserve University.