Say the name “Clarence Thomas” in any liberal setting and the response is likely to be short and swift: “self-hating,” “stupid,” “sellout.”

According to many liberals, Justice Thomas is naïve to the point of foolishness, endorsing policies that are colorblind in a society that is anything but that. Or he’s tormented, possessed by a loathing of black life so profound it can be explained only by the racism to which he has been subjected and has since internalized. Either way, he has betrayed the civil rights movement and the people who made his ascent possible.

Yet Justice Thomas, who begins his 29th year on the Supreme Court in October, has always been leery of colorblindness. “Code words like ‘colorblind’ aren’t all that useful,” he declared in 1985. “I don’t think this society has ever been colorblind.”

Justice Thomas is not, by his own lights, a conservative jurist who happens to be black. He is a black jurist whose conservatism is defined by the interests of black people as he understands them. He may be wrong about the relationship between that conservatism and those interests, but his is a jurisprudence that liberals misunderstand at their peril.

Clarence Thomas came of age in the waning days of the black freedom struggle. When he joined the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, with an inclination toward Malcolm X and a preference for “black power,” the right was gaining traction and the left was losing steam.

The conservative principles that Justice Thomas came to embrace — and still holds on the Supreme Court — reflect that sense of defeat. He now believes that black politics is an exercise in futility: The combination of white racism, racial inequality and the small size of the black electorate makes it impossible for African-Americans to achieve a political foothold.

“Blacks are the least-favored group in this society,” he has said. “Suppose we did band together, group against group — which group always winds up with the least? Which group always seems to get the hell kicked out of it? Blacks, and maybe American Indians.”

This attitude helps explain some of Justice Thomas’s otherwise inscrutable commitments. Consider his strong hostility to voting rights. Here, he hopes to limit the involvement of black people in electoral politics. Any such involvement, he believes, only reinforces white power and black powerlessness.

In his opinion in Holder v. Hall, a 1994 case concerning the interpretation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Justice Thomas offered an extended meditation on what he called the “voting strength” or “voting power” of African-Americans — conceived not as individuals or a community but as a politicized collective. Justice Thomas asked whether the goal of that collective should be “control over a lesser number” of elected offices or “influence over a greater number” of elected offices. When control is the goal, black majorities are concentrated in fewer districts but can decide the electoral outcome in those districts. When influence is the goal, black pluralities are extended across more districts; they don’t control the outcome of any one election but can affect the outcome of more elections at once.

While most scholars and jurists have debated which model better serves black interests, Justice Thomas rejected both models as misbegotten quests to maximize “the ‘weight’ or ‘influence’ of votes.” The simple fact, he wrote, was that “in a majoritarian system, numerical minorities lose elections.” African-Americans, he suggested, must come to terms with that political weakness. Even if district lines are redrawn to overcome that weakness, it will be (often white) elites who do the drawing.

Or consider the issue of eminent domain, where government acquires private property for public use. Justice Thomas opposes eminent domain not simply to protect the rights of private property, as most conservatives do. He also opposes it because he sees it as a tool of racial oppression.

Midcentury urban renewal programs used eminent domain to clear slums and improve downtown areas. They also uprooted African-Americans. In a 1963 interview, the writer James Baldwin declared that urban renewal “means Negro removal.” Citing that very line in his dissent in Kelo v. City of New London, a 2005 case that upheld the use of eminent domain, Justice Thomas wrote, “Urban renewal projects have long been associated with the displacement of blacks.”

Documenting the devastating effects of such policies on black communities, Justice Thomas cast the court’s support for eminent domain as a jurisprudence of ethnic cleansing. Poorer people will always be the victims of such policies, he said; they are “the least politically powerful” members of society. Invoking a sacred phrase of civil rights jurisprudence, he called the victims of eminent domain one of the “discrete and insular minorities” the political process often fails.

African-Americans, Justice Thomas believes, must look beyond politics. Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography: “The American black man should be focusing his every effort toward building his own businesses and decent homes for himself” so as to “build up the black race’s ability to do for itself. That’s the only way the American black man is ever going to get respect.” Justice Thomas agrees. Indeed, two decades after he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” he could still recite this passage from memory.

Rather than champion the black wage earner, whose subordination to white employers is all too reminiscent of politics, Justice Thomas celebrates the black business owner. He reports that his grandfather, an entrepreneur who helped raise him, liked to say, “I’m doing this for y’all so y’all don’t have to work for the white man.” Rather than amass wealth for himself and his family, Justice Thomas writes, his grandfather assumed “responsibility for the community” in which he lived. That belief in the saving power of black business owners runs throughout Justice Thomas’s philosophy.

Justice Thomas often invokes his grandfather to critique government redistribution of wealth. Attacks on the wealthy, he declared in a 1987 speech, are attacks on “people like my grandfather.”

At the heart of Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence, then, is a belief that the market is effective and politics is pointless. Such a jurisprudence suggests that Justice Thomas’s ideological story is less personal and psychological than it is historical and political. It reflects the larger retrenchment we’ve been living with since the 1970s, where politics is a commoner and capital is king, where people look to the market for solutions rather than the state.

At a moment when Democrats are arguing over a multiracial social democracy of the future versus a tepid neoliberalism of the past, we should remember that Justice Thomas has long mobilized racial pessimism against black voices on the social democratic left. Declaring in 1987 that a “broad coalition of voters” in the United States would never tolerate European-style universal programs that especially help black people, he posed a simple rhetorical question: When has socialism ever benefited “a ‘truly disadvantaged’ minority” like African-Americans?

Thirty-two years later, we’re still living with his answer — on both sides of the partisan divide.

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.

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