Toward Explaining Clarence Thomas – A Very Brief Look at How “Race” Operates

Clarence_Thomas_official_SCOTUS_portraitSupreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas is certainly an unusual judge—frequently considered the most conservative judge on the bench. (He recently gave his OK for individual states to establish an official state religion!)

Comments across news articles and social media constantly speculate about his seeming ignorance and/or laissez-faire attitude when it comes to concerns and justice for minority rights.

People ask, how could a Black Man be so uncaring and out-of-touch? 

So, I want to make just one extended point here. Thomas is a perfect example of how money, national status, and fame can buy Whiteness—just like was a legal right in various colonial Latin American nations. He is, thus, a perfect example of how “race” is not about skin color per se. Yes, of course, the various hues of our skin and how they are broadly and arbitrarily categorized do make up the basis of our completely non-biological, yet fully socially constructed racialized mores. The socially constructed nature of our racialized mores also gets more complicated when there are any kind of ambiguities or exceptions or unusual events one way or another. People can be racialized differently depending on their specific time and place or even clothing. Thomas’s behavior and his place in what bell hooks terms the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, therefore, makes Thomas “White” – not “Black.” And Thomas chooses to use his Whiteness to perpetuate Whiteness in such a way as to maintain the status quo of the rich White Protestant cis-Men. 

Such a framework of money equating to Whiteness per se could help explain Condoleezza Rice “having lost her heart,” as one of my grad school professors put it.

Likewise, it might help explain how Oprah’s big encounter with racism was being told she couldn’t afford a £24,000 bag while on a trip in Switzerland.

I’d venture to guess that these individuals are also, at least somewhat, racialized as White by the general public – especially Thomas and Rice among White conservatives, and Oprah among television-watchers and her followers.

This is by no means to undermine Thomas’s, Rice’s, and Oprah’s national and international accomplishments – these should be celebrated. They are very accomplished (though out-of-touch with everyday people) and (depending on the given group being asked) very popular individuals. But by looking at their accomplishments and behaviors, we can see in at least some additional ways how “race” is a social construction and a function of a variety of subjective, selective, always changing, and potentially individual factors in exceptional cases.

(Updated 7/5/14, 12:35 AM: For a somewhat different and extended perspective, check out “Clarence Thomas’s Counterrevolution” by Corey Robin”. HT to Jonathan Dresner on Twitter for telling me about it!)

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6 replies

  1. Suggest we all read _Acting white?: rethinking race in “post-racial” America_ by Carbado, Devon W. which discusses bodily acts, language, gender, and white expectations of non-dominant groups in the US. Carbado would support your ideas here.


  2. I’m going to plead ignorance and say that I didn’t not know much about Clarence Thomas before this post. Thank you for putting this together, the dude is very interesting.

    After reading this post a few more concepts you’ve talked about make more sense to me. Do you think using “White” to mean selling out, losing touch, and being more conservative is the best term possible to use? Like I’m sure if I used the word “Black” to infer that people were poor and uneducated, then people would go crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good comments/questions/thoughts. Very tricky, for sure. Racialization involves so much more than “skin color” or so-called biology, etc. I may have given this example in class but someone can easily be racialized differently depending on whether they are wearing “nice” clothes or informal clothes. I don’t at all intend “White” to be selling out but more forgetting the common people, forgetting how one “got lucky,” and perpetuating the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. There are many successful people of all racializations who are nice and help others. Also, Thomas is a good example of someone who, if nothing else, has had his “Blackness” overlooked because of his support for the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. My brain doesn’t have any more thoughts right now. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thought out reply!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! Thoughtful questions deserve thoughtful replies. 🙂


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