Speaking at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told college students that Americans are too sensitive about race. More astonishingly, Thomas went on to express a sort of revisionist nostalgia for segregation-era Georgia. Thomas exclaimed:
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.
He then went on to trivialize systemic racism by equating it with a mere slight, were someone gets their feelings hurt. Drawing a false equivalency between racism and routine everyday slights familiar to people of all races, Thomas adds that:
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 also went on to state that Northern liberal “elites” treated him worse than the folks in Jim Crow Era Georgia. Certainly Clarence Thomas has polished his conservative talking points. His nostalgia for the Jim Crow Era South sounds eerily similar to the remarks made by Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson about “racial harmony” in the pre-Civil Rights south. It is not clear whether Thomas is being disingenuous or if he actually believes his tripe that race was not as much of an issue in the segregated 1960s South as it is now.
Thomas asserts that the issue of race rarely came up in Savannah, Georgia in 1960. Perhaps he has no memory of the year and a half boycott organized by black leaders of the stores in the Broughton shopping district. The boycott was so thorough that many stores went bankrupt, as intransigent owners chose to have their stores die rather than desegregate. Maybe he was unaware of the fight to integrate city parks and public transportation that achieved success by 1961 in Savannah. Surely the issue of race came up when all of that was happening.
In addition, while Clarence Thomas may have remembered the time period as one of racial tranquility, most Georgia blacks probably have a different memory. While Clarence Thomas may think the slights he has to endure from white Northern liberal “elites” are the worst possible experiences a black man in America could live through, maybe his history is a bit fuzzy.
He probably does not remember a 23-year old black man, Artie Owens, getting shot in the back by a police officer in his hometown of Savannah. Maybe he forgot the many civil rights martyrs who were beaten and killed trying to desegregate the South and trying to register black Americans to vote.
If Clarence Thomas remembers the days of Jim Crow so fondly, perhaps that explains his hostility towards Voting Rights and Affirmative Action. He has forgotten the struggle black Americans endured to achieve a step towards equal treatment. He benefited from that struggle, but he has found his station of privilege and he has turned his back on the men and women who fought to make his success possible. That is his right, but he should not rewrite history in the process.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.