By Chris Hoenig
Americans are overly sensitive about race, according to the only Black Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Speaking to students at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, Clarence Thomaswho grew up during the civil-rights era in a segregated Savannah, Ga.said that the country is more “conscious” of race and racial discrimination now than when he was a child, an observation he bemoans.
“My sadness is that we are probably today more race- and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first Black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,” Thomas said. “Now, name a day it doesn’t come up.
“Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them, left them out.
“That’s a part of the deal.”
Thomas, widely viewed as the most conservative of the Supreme Court justices, left Georgia for Yale Law School, where he graduated in 1974. But despite growing up in the South in an era of legal segregation, Thomas said it was his move north that marked the beginning of his experiences with discrimination.
“The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated,” he told the students. “The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”
Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1990, serving for just more than a year before President George H.W. Bush tabbed him to become just the second Black U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice. A 52-48 vote by the Senate confirmed his nomination, replacing Thurgood Marshall, who was retiring 24 years after becoming the court’s first Black Associate Justice.
Today, Thomas is one of six Catholics serving on the Supreme Court. While his faith made him, as he puts it, “a two-fer for the Klan,” growing up as Black Catholic in the South, Thomas today credits his faith and the part it plays in his work on the bench.
“I quite frankly don’t know how you do these hard jobs without some faith. I don’t know. Other people can come to you and explain it to you. I have no idea,” he said. “I don’t know how an oath becomes meaningful unless you have faith. Because at the end you say, ‘So help me, God.’ And a promise to God is different from a promise to anyone else.”