Understanding Racism through the eyes of Clarence Thomas

I initially read this New Yorker profile on Clarence Thomas last year, but it’s been stuck in my mind ever since. So much so I had to read it again this week – I cannot remember reading an article twice in this way before, where I thought about it so much that I had to revisit it much later. What do you do about racism? And what is racism? If you listen to the New York Times podcast, Nice White Parents, it helped me think about what is it we really want when we ask for diversity or equality.

At Yale, Thomas developed an understanding of racism that he would never shake. Whites—Southern and Northern, liberal and conservative, rural and urban—are racists. Racism, Thomas would tell students at Mercer University, in 1993, “has complex and, to a certain degree, undiscoverable roots.” Not knowing its beginnings, we can’t know its end. The most that can be hoped for is that whites be honest about it. Honesty is demonstrated through crude statements of personal animus or intellectual suggestions of racial inequality. Dishonesty is demonstrated through denial of one’s racism and sympathetic extensions of help. Dishonesty lulls black people into a false sense of security, assuring them that they are safe when they are not. One of Thomas’s favorite songs is the 1971 hit “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” by the Undisputed Truth. Its classic lyric—“Smiling faces, smiling faces tell lies”—resonates with his experience of Northern white liberals. Among the virtues of the Reagan Administration, he has said, was the fact that no one there was “smiling in your face.”

Racism isn’t so much about “I don’t like a certain race”. After all, Donald Trump is quite sure of his lack of racist temperament. I think it’s more of what Clarence Thomas (and Harvard’s Project Implicit) is referring to – a refusal to believe in one’s own capability for bias (racism) at scale, leading to systemic racism.

When it comes to the issues surfaced in Nice White Parents, I too want to live in a diverse community with my children going to great schools. But do I just want to be around other “safe” upper middle class people, who just happen to be mostly white?

Or another way to think about it, “Black People are not Dark-Skinned White People.

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