Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2019

Advice to Corey Robin: Don’t take lawyers at their word, especially Clarence Thomas

Filed under: Black nationalism — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

As I stated in a previous post, I am not sufficiently motivated  to read and review Corey Robin’s book on Clarence Thomas but I will continue to respond to his articles promoting it. In yesterday’s NY Times, he wrote an op-ed piece titled “Clarence Thomas Is Not a ‘Sellout’” that gave me a better handle on his flawed methodology. I am not sure whether he was responsible for the subhead to the article (“Whether or not you agree with his jurisprudence, it is rooted in a commitment to black people”) but it makes you wonder what the word “commitment” really means. For example, I’ve heard that Assad was committed to the Syrian people but on what basis? In politics, actions count much more than words and Thomas had a long-time record of opposing Black rights, such as terminating class-action suits against racist hiring practices when he headed the EEOC. This hurt Black workers whatever justification he gave.

The opening paragraph reflects the parameters of Robin’s interest in Clarence Thomas’s career:

Say the name “Clarence Thomas” in any liberal setting and the response is likely to be short and swift: “self-hating,” “stupid,” “sellout.”

But what about the radicals, especially Black radicals? Does Robin care what they think? In many ways, The Black Agenda Report founded by former Black Panther members is the voice of Black radicalism in the USA. In 2007, editor Glen Ford wrote an article titled “Clarence Thomas, the ‘Anti-Black’” that was likely ignored by Robin. Ford wrote:

Thomas is a perverse right-wing joke played on Blacks and, being of above average intelligence despite his mental illness, he knows it. But it is a knowledge he cannot endure, a burden that has made him a pathological liar, who blurts out contradictions so antithetical to each other that they cannot possibly coexist in the same brain without a constant roiling and crashing that puts him at flight from himself and all those who remind him of his now hopelessly entangled torments and tormentors.

Ford is right to refer to the contradictions that come out of Thomas’s mouth. That’s what you might expect from a lawyer who is trained to argue both sides of a case. Somehow, in writing a book about Thomas, Robin lost track of the fact that his subject was a lawyer, not some  kind of political philosopher. I will expand upon this momentarily.

We learn that Clarence Thomas has no illusions in the “colorblindness” that liberals uphold as a goal:

Yet Justice Thomas, who begins his 29th year on the Supreme Court in October, has always been leery of colorblindness. “Code words like ‘colorblind’ aren’t all that useful,” he declared in 1985. “I don’t think this society has ever been colorblind.”

In 1996, an African-American named Curtis Flowers was arrested for killing four people during a furniture store robbery. During six retrials in Mississippi, the prosecutors systematically kept Blacks from serving on the jury. Preemptory challenges were used to remove  41 of 42 prospective black jurors over the years. When Flowers’s defense attorney appealed to Mississippi’s Supreme Court, it might have been expected that they had no problem with a racially unbalanced jury.

Finally, the Supreme Court heard Mississippi vs. Flowers this year to decide whether this obvious refusal to be colorblind was legal or not. If Thomas was on record as stating that the USA was not colorblind, you’d think that he would have voted with the majority that declared Flowers not guilty because of irregularities in jury selection. But he did not. He agreed with the Mississippi Supreme Court that such preemptory challenges were legitimate.

Some legal analysts view Thomas siding with the white supremacists as being consistent with the Supreme Court’s 1992 precedent in Georgia v. McCollum, where it held that the Constitution forbids the defense as well as prosecutors from using peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner. In other words, it was based on the law existing in a colorblind society. So in opposing the majority opinion on Flowers, Thomas was drawing from a decision that went against his supposedly Black nationalist convictions that his brothers and sisters can’t get a fair shake. That’s a contradiction that a skilled lawyer would perhaps be able to resolve, even if it does not fit into Robin’s schema.

I imagine that most people reading Robin’s piece will not bother to look up his written statements on the cases referred to in the article. That’s too much to expect from the liberals who rely on the NY Times for analysis, especially the op-ed pieces that tilt leftward but not too far.

He asks us to consider the issue of eminent domain, when the government has the right to purchase private property for public use. Robin argues that “Justice Thomas opposes eminent domain not simply to protect the rights of private property, as most conservatives do. He also opposes it because he sees it as a tool of racial oppression.”

Out of curiosity, I read Thomas’s opinion in the case of Kelo vs. New London in which the majority upheld the right of New London, Connecticut to utilize eminent domain just like Columbia University did when it needed to expand into West Harlem (my office was the first one to relocate from the main campus.)

Sure enough, you can find Thomas sounding as if he still believed that stuff he read in Malcolm X 40 years ago:

Urban renewal projects have long been associated with the displacement of blacks; “[i]n cities across the country, urban renewal came to be known as ‘Negro removal.’ ” Pritchett, The “Public Menace” of Blight: Urban Renewal and the Private Uses of Eminent Domain, 21 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 1, 47 (2003). Over 97 percent of the individuals forcibly removed from their homes by the “slum-clearance” project upheld by this Court in Berman were black. 348 U.S., at 30. Regrettably, the predictable consequence of the Court’s decision will be to exacerbate these effects.

The minority report was consistent with this. It took the side of the poor against the rich. (It should be mentioned that Thomas also referred to Poles in Detroit getting screwed by GM in the same fashion.) In her statement on behalf of the four dissenting judges, Sandra Day O’Connor was just as eloquent:

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.

When you put this together with Thomas’s reference to “Negro removal”, you might conclude that in addition to him and O’Connor, a Reagan appointee but a moderate, you might find a couple of bleeding-heart liberals standing up for the rights of Blacks and other poor people.

It turns out that it was Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, who along with Thomas constituted the court’s conservative wing. Does anybody think that Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas had concerns about “large corporations” imposing their will on working-class people, and in Thomas’s case African-Americans?

The biggest eminent domain case today involves Trump’s border wall. To this point, none of the landowners on the border have sued to protect their land probably because there has not been a move yet by the White House to use it. However, the Supreme Court gave Trump the green light to reallocate Pentagon funds to build the wall against a decision made by a lower court to provide such an irregular executive decision that, like the unfolding Ukraine controversy, symbolizes Trump’s authoritarianism.

My guess is that Thomas might vote against the use of eminent domain just to appear consistent. Since the conservatives have all the votes they need to move ahead with the wall, this is not a problem. Given Thomas’s vote in favor of reallocating Pentagon funds, that’s all he’ll need to show the Tucker Carlsons of the world that he intends to Make American Great Again.


  1. Thomas ruled that it’s ok for prison guards to beat the crap out of prisoners. For the good of black people of course.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — September 30, 2019 @ 9:01 pm

  2. Robin is engaging in one of the ludicrous intellectual exercises in recent memory.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 1, 2019 @ 4:26 am

  3. Louis,

    On a slightly different topic, I am surprised you haven’t posted about this “political Marxism” inspired drivel in Jacobin about slavery and capitalism:


    Henwood actually had this clown on his podcast…

    Comment by dermokrat — October 1, 2019 @ 5:19 am

  4. I’ve actually had some interaction with Clegg on FB who for some strange reason sent me a friend request. What did they say in “Godfather”? Keep your friends close but your enemies closer…

    Comment by louisproyect — October 1, 2019 @ 11:40 am

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