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If Clarence Thomas isn't 'elite,' who is?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 6:33 PM EDT, Tue May 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Clarence Thomas said black president had to be approved by "elites and the media"
  • LZ Granderson says it's part of longstanding effort by politicians to deny their own elite status
  • He says Thomas is clearly in the elite due to his role as Supreme Court justice
  • Politicians should be honest about gap between their lives, average Americans', he says

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and was a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- Supreme Court justices are in the top 10% of earners in this country. They attended the best universities and have access to the best health care, a pension plan unaffected by the economy and oh, by the way, immense power.

There isn't a socioeconomic litmus test they could take that would result in them being in a class result other than elite.

And yet Justice Clarence Thomas, when asked during an interview at the Duquesne University School of Law in April whether he thought he would see a black president in his lifetime, made it seem as if he's on the outside looking in. He said he knew "it would have to be a black president who was approved by the elites and the media, because anybody that they didn't agree with, they would take apart."

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

Thomas saying "the elites" in that context is like Honey Boo Boo complaining about "the trash on TV." People are asked to rise when he goes into the office, and he frames himself as some sort of powerless commoner? He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate, two symbols of America's elite.

No, Thomas is part of the elite class that, in his words, "approved" the selection of Barack Obama as the first black president. He can make a distinction between political leanings of those within the class, but that in no way impacts his socioeconomic status.

Thomas' remarks are an extension of the anti-elite rhetoric that has always been a part of the fabric of American politics but because of the proliferation of new media seems to have been amped up to a preposterous level. For the better part of three general elections, we have seen well-educated, well-funded, well-connected politicians bend over backwards trying not to appear to be well-educated, well-funded or well-connected.

Despite the charade, a study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that the average net worth of last year's incoming freshman in Congress was more than $1 million. The average American household? Less than $67,000.

Justice Clarence Thomas speaks out

Everyone wants to be seen as a Regular Joe, but no one wants to admit Regular Joes don't get to be president.

Or Supreme Court justice.

That's not un-American. In fact, if you look at our history, in some ways, that point couldn't be more American.

President James Madison, who is sometimes called "Father of the Constitution," came from wealth and attended what is now known as Princeton University. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, attended the College of William and Mary, rode horses for fun and played the violin. John Jay, another one of our Founding Fathers, was from a wealthy family in New York.

What's more stereotypically elite than a rich guy from New York?

This country's political dialogue would benefit greatly if we acknowledged that part of history and stopped treating the word "elite" like a hot potato. "Elites" exist in all 50 states, regardless of whether they're red or blue.

"Elites" exists in all effective lobbying groups; that's why they're effective.

And "elites" exist in national media, regardless of the call letters.

Fox News has comfortably been on top of the ratings food chain for a number of years now, and yet it continues to brand itself as an outsider, as if it's a weekly alternative newspaper and not a significant part of mainstream media.

At one point, Sarah Palin was making as much as $100,000 per speaking engagement and still tried to paint herself as disenfranchised. Last year, Rick Santorum famously misrepresented President Obama's education policy and deemed him a snob for pushing higher education -- while failing to mention his three degrees.

But the reason why elites play this branding shell game is because people on both sides of the aisle fall for it.

President Obama plays golf with Tiger Woods.

Rush Limbaugh pays Elton John $1 million to sing at his wedding.

And if you listen to them closely, it's the other guy who's elite.

Um, OK.

"I think the president is an elitist, and he thinks he knows what's best for everyone," Eric Maynard, a pastor from Flushing, Michigan, told the Washington Post after a Santorum event in February 2012. "In Michigan, we have a large blue-collar population, and what Sen. Santorum said is right. Not everybody can go to college."

Maynard is right; everybody can't go to college.

But what kind of Jedi mind trick has been used on the country when that very idea is offensive?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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