Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Clarence Thomas is right about race

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 9:17 AM EST, Sat February 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Clarence Thomas said America may be too sensitive about race today
  • Ruben Navarrette says Thomas displays courage and common sense
  • He says the justice is right in saying Northern liberal elites are less tolerant of differing views
  • Navarrette: Those on the left don't view conservatives of color as legitimate

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Clarence Thomas has an abundance of two things that are often in short supply whenever Americans talk about race: courage and common sense.

The only African-American on the Supreme Court displayed both this week in speaking to a small gathering of students and faculty at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a nondenominational Christian school in Florida.

In a series of provocative and insightful comments about race that were first reported by Yahoo! News and confirmed by several people who attended the talk and heard the remarks firsthand, Thomas dropped a few bombshells.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

This got people's attention because -- nearly 25 years after his bitter confirmation battle -- Thomas remains a lightning rod for controversy, and because he rarely speaks while on the bench. Apparently, he has been saving the best stuff for the public remarks that he delivers in more casual settings.

Like this one:

"My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school," Thomas told the audience. "To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white (Catholic) school. Rarely did the issue of race come up."

He went on to note that, these days, many Americans talk about race a lot and have a hair trigger on the subject.

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sit for their official photograph on October 8, 2010, at the Supreme Court. Front row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan. The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sit for their official photograph on October 8, 2010, at the Supreme Court. Front row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan.
Today's Supreme Court
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Photos: Today\'s Supreme Court Photos: Today's Supreme Court
Thomas: U.S. too 'sensitive' about race

"Now, name a day (race) doesn't come up," Thomas said. "Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn't look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive."

The sensitive include Samuel L. Jackson. In a cringe-inducing confrontation, Jackson scolded an entertainment reporter at a Los Angeles television station after the journalist, in asking about a Super Bowl commercial, appeared to confuse Jackson for another African-American actor -- Laurence Fishburne. Both actors had appeared in Super Bowl commercials, and the reporter seemed to get them mixed up.

"You're as crazy as the people on Twitter. I'm not Laurence Fishburne!" Jackson said during a live TV interview with KTLA's Sam Rubin. "We don't all look alike. We may be all black and famous, but we all don't look alike. You're busted."

Rubin immediately apologized for the mistake, but Jackson kept razzing him. It was overkill.

"I'm the other guy," the actor said. "There's more than one black guy doing a commercial. I'm the 'What's in your wallet?' black guy. He's the car black guy. Morgan Freeman is the other credit card black guy. You only hear his voice, though, so you probably won't confuse him with Laurence Fishburne."

It seemed to be all in good fun, but it was still hard to watch. Rubin made a mistake. But it looked like Jackson was the one with the problem.

Rubin did have some defenders. They include CNN's Don Lemon, who -- after a contentious exchange between guests on a show he was hosting -- seemed to agree with Thomas that "people are really sensitive when it comes to race."

Finally, Thomas took aim at a group that often gets a pass for its mistreatment of minorities that it claims to be helping.

"The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites," he said. "The absolute worst I have ever been treated, the worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, are by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia."

Only Thomas can speak to how he has been treated in his life, and who treated him worse. That is a personal matter. As one of the most conservative members of the High Court, he obviously has little respect for liberals. And the feeling is entirely mutual.

And yet, we can expect Thomas' observation about "northern liberal elites" to resonate with many other African-Americans and Latinos who have been criticized, attacked, or disparaged by this bunch for veering off the script of how minorities are supposed to think, speak and behave. Those minorities are often treated as defective in some way and certainly not representative of their respective communities. They're an aberration, an anomaly, a mistake.

Make no mistake. The friction here isn't about politics. It's about something more primal: control. Liberals wanted to give people like Clarence Thomas every right except, it turns out, the right to think for themselves. If you forget that, you'll be labeled a "sellout," a "traitor," a "right wingnut" or worse.

Most Americans probably look back on Thomas' confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991, and think that what made them so messy were those unseemly accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. That was a sideshow. The real reason for the tension in those hearings was that Thomas represents something liberals can't stand: a black conservative.

Those on the left see conservatives of color as a kind of sociological experiment gone bad -- these are people who are ungrateful for the many opportunities they were provided by the liberal establishment which, in return, asked for only three things: undying loyalty, constant agreement, and lifelong subservience.

Thomas doesn't play that game. He never has. And that's why he is always at the center of the storm.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT