Raymond J. de Souza: Will Justice Clarence Thomas exact revenge on Joe Biden?

, Raymond J. de Souza: Will Justice Clarence Thomas exact revenge on Joe Biden?, The Evepost National News

Thirty years ago, then-Sen. Biden presided over Thomas’s confirmation hearings, which the judge deemed an attempted ‘high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks’

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One of the curious things about American democracy is that many figures serve for decades in high positions. There is no one in the current Canadian House of Commons who held a senior leadership position in 1991.

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In the United States, however, there are plenty who are still hanging around, the most prominent of which is currently president of the United States. It was 30 years ago, in October 1991, that Joe Biden presided over the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, an African-American who is still serving on the Supreme Court, after a 52-48 Senate vote in his favour.

Those confirmation hearings exploded when Prof. Anita Hill accused Judge Thomas of sexual harassment. She testified before the senators that Thomas has subjected her to unwanted and explicit sexual conversations. An infuriated Thomas said she was lying and excoriated the committee for what he said was a “high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks” — the most charged words he could have possibly used. Putting the entire matter in the context of racial politics was an effective tactic; a wavering Senate that was moving against him confirmed him by a narrow margin instead.

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, Raymond J. de Souza: Will Justice Clarence Thomas exact revenge on Joe Biden?, The Evepost National News
U.S. law professor Anita Hill takes the oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., as she prepares to make allegations of workplace sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, on Oct. 12, 1991. Photo by ENNIFER LAW/AFP/Getty Images

Years later Thomas would write that Biden’s chairmanship of the hearings was confused and mendacious, with the then 17-year veteran senator lapsing into long-winded incoherence.

Thomas wrote that in his 2007 memoir, but it attracted little attention at the time. That Biden’s long tenure was undistinguished was widely recognized. Now that the Biden administration will have business before the Supreme Court, Thomas’s rulings will be scrutinized for any apparent bias against a man whose intelligence and honour he holds in exceedingly low esteem. Critics will be watching Thomas to see if he exacts revenge for Biden’s shabby treatment of him.

Aside from Thomas and Hill, the most notable aspect of the hearings was the near-total silence of the normally voluble Ted Kennedy. The Massachusetts senator was then involved in a massive sex scandal of his own, having gone on a drunken Good Friday bender earlier in the year which resulted in a rape charge against his nephew.

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Sen. Kennedy was not charged, but his presence was an excruciating reminder that the accusations against Thomas paled in comparison to the behaviour of some of the senators sitting in judgment over him. The rape trial of William Kennedy Smith would take place after the Thomas hearing, and Kennedy’s nephew was acquitted of rape, though the sordid details stained the senator’s reputation.

Thomas would write that Biden’s chairmanship of the hearings was confused and mendacious

The Thomas hearings have long been considered a critical moment in the changing dynamics of sexual politics; many women were motivated to run for the Senate afterwards. In 1992, two women were elected from California, including Dianne Feinstein, who at 88 years old will mark 30 years in the Senate next year. In 2018, Feinstein was the key senator in bringing forth sexual misconduct allegations during the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, a reprise, as it were, of the Thomas hearings.

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While Thomas won confirmation and has gone on to a long and influential tenure on the bench, he lost the larger argument that he was trying to make in 1991. The full quotation gives that argument:

, Raymond J. de Souza: Will Justice Clarence Thomas exact revenge on Joe Biden?, The Evepost National News

“This is a circus,” he said. “It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a Black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

Thomas argued that Blacks were expected to be political and judicial liberals, and one such as he, a conservative, would be punished for rejecting the role white liberals expected him to play. He further argued that America’s racist history often relied upon accusations of sexual aggression to demean and exclude Black men, and that was what was happening to him.

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Thomas dissented from the view that Black men were somehow suspect if they were not liberals. He was unable to convince Sen. Biden, who, 29 years later and running for president for the third time, told Black radio host Charlamagne tha God: “I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”

He later apologized for saying what he thought, that all Blacks should be liberal Democrats, but it was evidence that despite Justice Thomas being the most senior conservative on the Supreme Court, he had not changed the liberal view about how Blacks are supposed to think.

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In 2020, a documentary film Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words brought to a wider audience what Thomas wrote about in his acclaimed autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son . He told his story about growing up Black and poor in segregated Georgia and how his experience of racism after moving north to attend university led him to different conclusions about the liberal politics of the civil rights establishment.

Thirty years on, as the senior associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thomas has joined the establishment, but he has not converted it. And the man whose politics assumes that Blacks should think a certain way is now in the White House.

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