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Jewish World Review / Aug. 3, 1998 / 11 Menachem-Av, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

An American hero

THE INVITATION TO SPEAK at the National Bar Association, the nation's largest organization of black lawyers, was extended to Justice Clarence Thomas the way so many of his speaking invitations are -- with a rubber band attached.

Justice Thomas
No sooner did news of the offer surface, than an influential group of the organization's leaders tried to have the invite revoked. And in the weeks leading up to last Wednesday's address, there were grumblings and murmurs from Thomas' detractors. Some of his opponents even distributed fliers suggesting that audience members walk out when Thomas rose to speak.

It didn't happen. To their credit, the nearly 2,000 black lawyers and judges gave Thomas what he so richly deserves, a respectful hearing.

And a moving and courageous speech it was. It is never easy to address a hostile (or even suspicious) audience. But Thomas carried it off with humor, sincerity and passion.

For the first time, Thomas publicly rebuked those of his critics who have grossly mischaracterized his opinions and openly speculated that he must be following the intellectual lead of other Supreme Court justices. "What else could possibly be the explanation when I fail to follow an ideological and intellectual -- if not anti-intellectual -- prescription assigned to blacks? Since thinking beyond this prescription is presumptively beyond my ability, obviously somebody must be putting strange ideas into my mind and my opinions. Although being underestimated has its advantages, the stench of racial inferiority still can foul my olfactory nerves."

If you don't believe Thomas, just ask Antonin Scalia, his presumed Svengali. I was fortunate enough to be seated next to Scalia at a big Washington dinner a few years ago, and the subject of Thomas' critics arose. "No one tells Clarence Thomas what to think," the more senior justice told me. In fact, he related a story about a particular case in which Scalia changed his mind after reading Thomas' opinion.

It must be particularly galling for Thomas to be judged intellectually inferior by his fellow blacks simply because he does not endorse the views they favor.

Not only do liberals judge those who disagree with them to be intellectually dim, they believe them to be evil, as well. Thomas' opinion in Hudson vs. McMillion, a prison civil-rights case, has been cited as evidence that Thomas wishes his fellow blacks ill.

In his speech to the NBA, Thomas mentioned criticism of that case (in which he had ruled the guards who beat a prisoner acted illegally and immorally -- but that the injury could not be redressed by reference to the Eighth Amendment), saying "the conclusion reached by long arms of the critics was that I supported the beating of prisoners. ... One must be either illiterate or fraught with malice to reach that conclusion."

Well, "fraught with malice" is a pretty good description of Thomas' chief persecutor, retired Judge A. Leon Higginbotham. Higginbotham was one of those who tried to have Thomas disinvited to the NBA meeting. In a letter circulated last May, he wrote, "It makes no more sense to invite Clarence Thomas than it would have for the National Bar Association to invite George Wallace for dinner the day after he stood in the schoolhouse door and shouted 'Segregation today and segregation forever.'"

Why is Thomas the moral equivalent of Wallace? Because he believes that any policy -- including affirmative action -- predicated on black inferiority is harmful to blacks. Thomas declines to change that opinion, despite the obloquy it engenders from the likes of Higginbotham. "It pains me more deeply than any of you can imagine," he told the NBA, "to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm. All the sacrifice, all the long hours of preparation were to help, not to hurt." But Thomas would rather live with the pain of rejection than compromise his independent mind and spirit.

Thomas is an example of the dignity that descends upon those who get beyond racism and groupthink. He reminded his audience that he is a man, and thus not immune to the pain of exile. But more than that, he is a man of principle, who will not bend to the prevailing winds. That kind of heroism is usually honored only posthumously.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.