Yesterday I commented on a letter that president Obama wrote back in his days as Harvard Law Review president at Harvard. My post was mostly about Obama’s grammar, but the subject matter of his letter was affirmative action. Here’s what he had to say about that:
I must say, however, that as someone who has undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action programs during my academic career, and as someone who may have benefited from the Law Review’s affirmative action policy when I was selected to join the Review last year, I have not personally felt stigmatized either within the broader law school community or as a staff member of the Review. Indeed, my election last year as President of the Review would seem to indicate that at least among Review staff, and hopefully for the majority of professors at Harvard, affirmative action in no way tarnishes the accomplishments of those who are members of historically underrepresented groups.
Yesterday I also wrote briefly about some commentary made by Walter Russell Mead on a New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Today I got around to reading the Toobin piece; it contains this observation about Thomas’s attitude towards affirmative action:
The gist of Thomas’s complaint about Yale reflects his feelings about the worth of affirmative action generally. In his book, Thomas recounts his difficulties finding a job after Yale, which he attributed to “what a law degree from Yale was worth when it bore the taint of racial preference.” In light of this, he wrote, “Yale meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks, no matter how much anyone denied it.” This hostility to élite institutions manifested itself at Stetson. “We talk about diversity. The real problem of our Court is that it’s all Ivy League,” Thomas said. Currently, all nine Justices attended law school at either Harvard or Yale. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there are other law schools out there,” he said. Alone among his colleagues, Thomas usually selects at least some of his law clerks from less prominent schools.
No doubt the difference between Obama’s and Thomas’s perception of affirmative action both reflected their already-held politics and helped to further and solidify each man’s politics afterward. The disparity may have also had something to do with timing: Thomas is considerably older, and graduated from law school when affirmative action was still relatively new and attitudes towards it were probably less PC (he graduated from Yale Law School in 1974, to Obama’s 1991 from Harvard Law). Plus, Thomas lacked Obama’s smooth style, the one that has appealed so mightily to many white people and has contributed to making him The One. These differences may have helped shape their divergent experiences both in law school and later in the job market.
For many years after his 1991 appointment to the Court, Thomas was portrayed in the liberal media as a simpleton Uncle Tom. The Toobin article marks a huge departure from this point of view. The portrait of Thomas it paints is of a very smart and determined man who goes his own way, and is accordingly extremely dangerous to liberal aims. I’ve long felt that Thomas’s own life story indicates an incredible drive and tenacity: his hardscrabble upbringing and the trajectory of his achievements make for an amazing story of perseverance and strength.
Also of great interest in terms of the Obama letter and its poor grammar is this biographical note from Thomas’s Wiki entry:
Clarence Thomas was born in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia, a small, predominantly black community founded by freedmen after the American Civil War. When he was a child, the town lacked a sewage system and paved roads. He was the second of three children born to M.C. Thomas, a farm worker, and Leola Williams, a domestic worker. They were descendants of American slaves, and the family spoke Gullah as a first language…Having spoken the Gullah language as a child, Thomas realized in college that he still sounded unpolished despite having been drilled in grammar at school, and he chose to major in English literature “to conquer the language”.
There is so much of interest in the Toobin piece that I recommend you read the whole thing. As for the question of why Toobin wrote it, my answer is that he did so to alert the liberal public to the fact that Thomas is a (to them) dangerous radical of the right, and that far from being a fool, he is a highly intelligent opponent who is to be feared rather than ridiculed. In the course of the article, Toobin also touches on a few more things to discredit Thomas: he reaffirms Anita Hill’s charges by listing a bunch of other people whose reports seem to corroborate hers, he describes Thomas’s wife’s Tea Party activities in order to underline attempts to get the dangerous Thomas to recuse himself from any case involving a challenge to Obamacare, and he attempts to put down Thomas’s originalism as “just another kind of interpretation.”
[ADDENDUM: I just noticed Michael Barone's piece on Toobin's article. He and I seem to agree on Toobin's motives for writing it.]