Thomas vs. Sotomayor

by Brien Jackson

I will confess, the focus on race in Sonia Sotomayor’s SCOTUS nomination has left me comparing her to Clarence Thomas more than once, so today’s article on the topic in the New York Times was of high interest to me. But the article, as one would expect from the Times, leaves quite a bit to be desired. The conclusion is nauseating in the way it regurgitates right-wing conventional wisdom about both judges, and the particulars leave a lot of relevant information out, especially about Thomas.

There’s no shortage of references to the fact that Thomas purportedly “abhors affirmative action,” but what’s interesting to me is the way these accounts significantly underplay the central role race has always played in Thomas’s rise. There’s the obvious connection made; Thomas was a conservative black man appointed to replace the court’s first, and only, black justice, and would probably not have gotten that appointment were he not a black man. I think that’s a fairly banal observation given the context of the nomination, and I don’t think anyone who denies it ought to be taken seriously. And while I tend to think that people denigrating Thomas as not smart are being somewhat unfair, it is true that his academic accomplishments are objectively below the apparent standards of the contemporary court. But more striking than that is the way most accounts ignore Thomas’s professional history before being nominated to the court. We’re not talking about someone who spent a decade or so on the bench, or someone who was involved at the pinnacle of academia. Thomas was appointed Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education in 1981, and from there moved on to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Council before being appointed to the Circuit court about a year before his appointment to the Supreme Court. He is, in other words, someone whose professional life for the past 3 decades has been almost totally defined by his race. Moreover, it’s been defined that way by other. When Reagan-Bush needed a black man for a spot, they turned to Clarence Thomas, even for a job he wasn’t particularly qualified for. To be fair to Thomas, I suspect I would be deeply resentful of that as well.

But it seems to me that the problem with Thomas is that he’s projected his experience on to everyone else, and Sotomayor is, in many ways, his antithesis. Sotomayor may have benefitted from affirmative action in being admitted to Princeton, but once there she graduated summa cum laude before going on to graduate at the top of her Yale Law class. Rather than becoming a token minority in race-related positions in a conservative administration, Sotomayor went to work as an Assistant District Attorney in New York City, then into private practice, before being appointed to the District Court at roughly the same time Thomas was appointed to the Circuit Court. Unlike Thomas, however, who was quickly moved up to the Supreme Court, Bill Clinton picked two other people to nominate for the Supreme bench, and now that Sotomayor is being elevated to the highest court, her formal qualifications are more or less beyond question, a stark contrast with Thomas’s nomination.

I could write a much longer post psycho-analyzing Clarence Thomas, and maybe I will, but for now, I’ll just say that the comparison between the two nominees is very interesting, but not if you whitewash Thomas’s side of the story.

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