Lidija Haas reviews The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin:
’Robin suggests that the misreadings of Thomas are themselves based in racism, comparing the justice to Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man,” the one people “refuse to see.” (Invisible Man is, he notes, alongside Richard Wright’s Native Son, Thomas’s favorite novel.) Introducing the common idea of Thomas as “an intellectual nonentity, a dim bulb in a brightly lit room,” Robin rehearses a host of clichés about his supposed incompetence or laziness—qualities that would, some have implied, explain why he doesn’t speak up on the bench, is rarely assigned the majority opinion in important cases, and gets his clerks to write his opinions for him (this last accusation strikes me as odd, since Thomas’s opinions hardly seem the bland, predictable stuff you’d expect to get by paying someone else to do your homework). Robin claims that the only other justice “subject to all of these kinds of insinuations” was, not coincidentally, also the Supreme Court’s only other black justice, Thurgood Marshall, whom Thomas replaced.
Robin’s Thomas is no dimwit but a man of ideas, albeit dark, furious, and terrifying ones. “His beliefs,” Robin announces in an introduction, “are disturbing, even ugly; his style is brutal.” Robin recognizes no essential contradiction or vacillation in this man who by the late ’80s, several years into his career within the Reagan administration, could still lovingly recite Malcolm X by heart. He sees a powerful continuity between Thomas’s black nationalism and his conservatism, extrapolating from his words a coherent worldview that helps explain his approach to a slew of issues, from voting rights to gun ownership, from the Commerce Clause to gender relations. In Robin’s account, Thomas sees American racism as foundational, permanent, and ineradicable, such that African Americans should never hope for justice or advancement to come through either political representation (since they will remain a loathed minority) or any strategy dependent on the generosity of white institutions.…’