Ask the author: Making the invisible justice visible – “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas”
on Nov 7, 2019 at 3:00 pm
The following is a series of questions posed by Ronald Collins to Corey Robin in connection with Robin’s new book, “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas” (Metropolitan Books, 2019).
Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump” (2017) and “Fear: The History of a Political Idea” (2006). His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The London Review of Books. He has received fellowships from the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, the Russell Sage Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Welcome, Corey, and thank you for taking the time to participate in this question-and-answer for our readers. And congratulations to you on the publication of this exceptionally thoughtful book.
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I marched. I protested. I asked the government to help black people,” Thomas told The Washington Post in 1980. “I did all those things. But it hasn’t worked.”
Question: Did you attempt to interview Thomas for this book?
Robin: No. Thomas is a practiced political person who’s got his lines down. You’d have to be a superbly skilled journalist, someone like Janet Malcolm, who I’m not, to get Thomas to break out of his script.
Also, Thomas’ persona is so present throughout his opinions, his self is so stamped on the page, that I felt there was no need to talk to him. His opinions are brutal and revealing enough: That was all the self I needed to know.
Question: You use the word “enigma” in your title. As you know, the term comes from a Greek term that means “to speak in riddles,” fables or metaphors that test a listener’s or reader’s alertness. What is the riddle of Thomas’ life story?
Robin: At first I thought the enigma was how this man who was once a black nationalist on the left could have come to embrace the right. With time, that came to seem less of an enigma to me. Not only have there been other African Americans who have made that journey (not to mention whites who’ve moved from left to right), but there’s also an overlap between some strains of black nationalism and black conservatism.
What ultimately came to seem more enigmatic was that this man is on the Supreme Court, where he’s managed for nearly 30 years to maintain that traffic between these two traditions of black nationalism and black conservatism, with hardly anyone noticing. There’s no precedent for that on the court, and unpacking how Thomas has translated this peculiar blend of beliefs into this distinctive genre of American writing, the Supreme Court opinion, in which that blend is so unfamiliar – again, without many people noticing – that is an enigma. It requires approaching his opinions with a certain amount of literary attention, historical knowledge and political care — precisely the kind of readerly alertness that you rightly bring up in your question.
Question: The epigraph to your book is taken from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1952), a novel that explored the social and intellectual issues facing African Americans in the early 20th century: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me … When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.” How does this quote set the stage for what unfolds in your book?
Robin: While I was writing this book, I constantly had people, the most well meaning, liberal-minded people, tell me who Thomas is and what he thinks. It didn’t matter that their perceptions seldom matched reality. It didn’t matter that I was the one who was writing the book. They knew what they knew. They refused to listen, to look; they refused to hear or see. Their reactions reached beyond politics; it was almost as is if they had no curiosity about this man, had no need to know anything about him, even though he is longest-serving member of the current Supreme Court, and increasingly one of the more powerful members of that court.
The great bulk of the evidence I rely upon in my book is not hard to find or hidden away. It’s right there in Thomas’ opinions, which anyone can read on the web. Yet very few people read those opinions or even know that they exist, and when they do read them, whether as admirers or critics of Thomas, they don’t see what’s in them. They don’t hear the voice that’s speaking, they don’t see the man who’s speaking.
So here you have a man with the most distinctive voice of any justice on the court yet who remains completely unheard and completely unseen. As outrageous and tendentious as this may sound — and believe me, I came to this position quite slowly, and still say it with a certain amount of trepidation — it’s hard not to conclude that Clarence Thomas is the “Invisible Man” of the Supreme Court.
Question: By many measures, yours is an unorthodox judicial biography in that it portrays its subject from neither a chronological nor a doctrinal perspective. You present Thomas’ life story and jurisprudence through the lens of three main ideas – race, capitalism and competing views of the Constitution. Why did you organize the book this way?
Robin: All of the biographies about Thomas emphasize the life he led before he joined the court at the expense of the life he has led since joining the court. And those biographies that do discuss the latter tend to focus less on the jurisprudence than on Thomas’ (or his wife Ginny Thomas’) extramural activities off the court.
Because I saw a thematic unity between Thomas’ life before he joined the court and his opinions on the court, I wanted a structure that would capture that unity. Not only are race, capitalism and Constitution the three main ideas of his jurisprudence, but they also track and tell the story of Thomas’ life. Thomas first comes to race as a younger man in the 1950s and 1960s. He comes to capitalism as an emergent conservative in the 1970s. He comes to ideas about the Constitution as an aspirant to the Supreme Court in the 1980s. So the structure enabled me to present both the life and jurisprudence in a coherent way.
But there’s another reason I chose to structure the book in this way, which is to challenge how court-watchers talk about the court.
Many legal scholars, in fact, counseled me against this structure, urging me to organize the book along conventional doctrinal lines that they’re familiar with and used to: a chapter on Thomas’ views of the First Amendment, another on his views of federalism and so on. But once you start parceling out Thomas’ arguments in that way, you miss not only the life story but also the underlying political and ideological consistency of his thought. You stop being able to make sense of his writing as a whole.
As political theorist and an intellectual historian, I tend to view ideas and arguments as politics by other means. Thomas is a very political person — not simply in the conventional partisan sense of that term, though he is that, but also in the deeper sense of politics as expressing a coherent worldview about power and authority in society.
So where legal scholars, focused on doctrinal questions, can only see inconsistency and opportunism in Thomas’ opinions, or want to psychologize his views as a way of not thinking about them as political ideas (I can’t tell you how many legal scholars want to reduce everything Thomas says to his bad experiences at Yale Law School, as if he were the only person who was miserable at Yale Law School!), I tend to see deeper consistencies and visions, which don’t track tidy doctrinal or even partisan lines but do reflect a larger political imagination.
Question: In 1989, while he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas published a law review article based on remarks delivered at a 1988 Federalist Society event. In that article he wrote that “[c]onservatives need to realize that their audience is not [simply] composed of … lawyers.” He urged conservatives not to confine themselves to “litigation” but to view their cause as “a political struggle.”
However, there is something apolitical about Thomas’ philosophy as you describe it. Can you address this apparent paradox?
Robin: I wouldn’t say Thomas’ philosophy is apolitical so much as it is anti-political.
Thomas does not believe that politics in any sense of that term — electoral politics, social movements, state action and regulation, organizing, even more radical notions of transformative change — can positively affect black people; he thinks politics mostly hurts black people. Since the mid-1970s, he has been deeply pessimistic about the possibilities of political change: Political action of any sort, he believes, cannot improve or ameliorate the condition of black people in the United States.
At the same time, Thomas passionately wants to persuade black people of the truth of this belief, to convince them to shed their commitments to liberalism and the Democratic Party. That’s what gives his Supreme Court opinions their distinctive political cast. That may be a paradox or a contradiction — that is, using the persuasive means and mechanisms of politics (the court, after all, is a political institution) to cultivate a deeply anti-political set of beliefs — but if it is, it’s not Thomas’ alone. It’s fairly common to many right-wing people — libertarians, for example — though Thomas is not a libertarian.
Question: Thomas’ concurrence in Holder v. Hall (1994) offers a glimpse into his views about “black power” in the electoral realm. And that opinion, as you analyze it, aligns with his views on the value of electoral politics for African Americans. Can you open a window into Thomas’ thinking in this area?
Robin: Back in 1987, long after he had made his right turn and joined the Reagan Administration, and just four years before he joined the court, Thomas declared in The Atlantic: “Blacks are the least favored group in this society. Suppose we did band together, group against group—which group do you think would win? … Which group always winds up with the least? Which group always seems to get the hell kicked out of it? Blacks, and maybe American Indians.”
Notice what Thomas is and isn’t saying. He isn’t saying African Americans don’t have a common interest or shared position in society. They do. He isn’t saying African Americans aren’t the most oppressed, or close to the most oppressed, group in society. They are. But what he is also saying is that when African Americans act collectively to express and pursue that interest, when they try to overcome their fate through political means, they will lose. Badly and dangerously.
That view lies at the heart of Thomas’ opinions on voting rights and various efforts to empower black people collectively in the electoral realm. He thinks it’s a fool’s errand, that black people will always or at least mostly lose in a white majoritarian system, and the only way they won’t lose is to depend upon the good wishes and benevolence of white people, which again, he thinks is a dangerous and crippling illusion.
Question: “Race,” you write, “is the foundational principle of Thomas’ philosophy and jurisprudence.” Later you suggest that his “jurisprudence may be a bitter mix of right-wing revanchism and black nationalism, but it is distinctively American and of the moment.” What do you mean by this, and why do you find his jurisprudence to be “of the moment?”
Robin: We live at a time when conservatives, at least in the Republican Party, are not shy about their white nationalism. They don’t dress up their racism in the garb of colorblindness or a concern with federalism, as they used to do, or try to pretend that they care about the content of people’s character rather than the color of their skin.
From early on, Thomas has claimed to prefer the overt racism he knew while growing up in the Jim Crow South to the racial duplicity he claims to have experienced in the North, where whites professed a racial innocence or racial benevolence that covered up their secret belief in the inferiority or difference of black people. In many ways, Trump’s coming out of the closet on race, his willingness to say what many people thought they had to keep secret, is consonant with Thomas’ view of the permanence of racial conflict and enmity.
Thomas’ beliefs and opinions — which support the vast and unequal accumulation of wealth, the arming of people to the teeth, the imprisonment of so many people and racial conflict as far as the eye can see — are so consonant with the world we live in today that I think you could safely say, of all the justices on the Supreme Court, he has the greatest claim to being the public philosopher of our moment, this wretched, wretched moment.
Question: How does Thomas’ black nationalism fit in with his jurisprudence of “race-conscious conservatism,” as you label it? And how does this impact Thomas’ views on affirmative action, as expressed in his dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)?
Robin: Unlike many conservatives, Thomas does not believe, and doesn’t give any lip service to the belief, that colorblind policies will lead to a colorblind society. He simply does not believe it’s possible for America not to be racist. He has said quite clearly that he is not sympathetic to integration as an ideal. And in some of his opinions — from United States v. Fordice (1992) to Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle (2007) — he not only has questioned whether integration works for black people and improves racial attitudes but also has voiced support for black people’s having separate institutions of their own, apart from white people.
This makes Thomas’ views on affirmative action quite different from those of most white conservatives. Thomas doesn’t focus on the alleged harms suffered by alleged white victims of affirmative action, the way other white conservatives do. Instead, he focuses on what he thinks are the harms imposed upon black people, the stigma of inferiority that he believes taints all black achievements.
He often comes close to arguing that affirmative action is simply the continuation of Jim Crow: not simply because, as other white conservatives claim, it is race-conscious, but because it is race consciousness that he thinks harms African Americans, a race consciousness that is defended, as Jim Crow often was, as in the interests of African Americans.
More important, he sees affirmative action as a program of white elites who are less interested in diversifying their institutions than they are in maintaining their hegemony and power.
Question: Thomas has an abiding interest in reviving the privileges and immunities clause of the 14th Amendment so as to reverse the holding in the Slaughter House Cases (1875). Among other places, Thomas made that point in his dissent in Saenz v. Roe (1999). What is the drift of his thinking here?
Robin: Thomas sees the privileges and immunities clause as the foundational right won for and by African Americans during the struggle over slavery and its aftermath, a period he knows quite well and has written about at length, often citing the work of left-wing scholars such as Herbert Aptheker and Eric Foner. More than the equal protection clause, he thinks, the privileges and immunities clause is the foundation of black freedom.
At the same time, Thomas has a fairly narrow view of the kinds of freedoms the privileges and immunities clause is meant to protect (this is part of the argument he makes in Saenz). The central freedom, it becomes clear over the course of Thomas’ later jurisprudence, is the right to bear arms. The right to bear arms can obviously have a distinctive right-wing valence, but it also has had, throughout American history, left-wing and black-nationalist valences. Thomas draws from all those traditions. But whether his views are right-wing or left-wing or both, it’s pretty clear that his vision of the privileges and immunities clause protects a more limited set of freedoms than the equal protection clause or the due process clause would protect.
I should add that Thomas’ commitment to the privileges and immunities clause, and his grounding of the clause in the struggle for emancipation, has distinguished him, at least thus far, from most conservatives on the court. It often leads him into conflict with his conservative colleagues, who opt for substantive interpretations of the due process clause as the basis for extending the right to bear arms to the states — a move that Thomas rejects.
Question: In reading your book, one gets a strong sense that for Thomas the wrongs of slavery can never be repaired. Where does Thomas believe that leaves the nation, black and white alike, in the struggle for racial justice?
Robin: Thomas does not believe in racial justice. It’s that simple. He believes in racial survival, the survival and persistence of the African American community. He doesn’t think that can be achieved through conventional liberal or left-wing means; it can only be achieved if black people withdraw from the institutions of the state and focus on their collective development, apart from white people.
Question: How does Thomas’ purported allegiance to black nationalism and the push for a “state of exigency” comport with his acknowledgment of the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks? Why, as in his dissent in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. (2015), does he appear to discount disparate-impact analysis?
Robin: At the heart of Thomas’ vision of the survival of the black community are black men — really, black patriarchs. In black men he finds the potential salvation of black people as a collective.
He also thinks generations of black men have been crippled by the rights revolutions of liberalism: by the alleged relief of responsibility and diminution of discipline that were wrought by the New Deal and the Great Society and the Warren Court. The combination of the welfare state, the sexual revolution and the rise of due-process rights for defendants — all this has led black men, Thomas believes, to abandon their responsibilities to their families and their communities.
Because of their precarious position in a white racist society, Thomas believes that black people are more dependent upon the power and strength of men than are other communities. But the only way black men will find that power and strength, he thinks, is through firm modes of punishment and authority. That punishment and authority were crippled by the rights revolutions; the only way they can be restored is by a restoration of the state’s capacity to punish. This, I should add, is not necessarily a black-nationalist belief; it’s one of the cornerstones of Thomas’ conservatism, but it’s a conservatism that is very much framed by reference to black people.
Thomas’ opinion in Inclusive Communities reflects a different element of his philosophy. In the early 1980s, when Thomas was at the EEOC, he was more sympathetic to disparate-impact analysis (at least when it came to race; when it came to gender, he refused to entertain the idea) on the ground that racism was so systemic, so pervasive throughout society, that even the most racially neutral policies could reproduce racial inequalities.
By the time of Inclusive Communities, Thomas had turned 180 degrees on the question of disparate impact. He rejects the doctrine completely. But what’s so interesting about his rejection is that his underlying social view of race — that it’s systemic throughout society, that institutional policies are ineffective in countering it — remains the same. Only this time, he concludes that it makes no sense to try and redress the problem at the level of housing or other policy, or at the level of an institution, because “a given racial disparity at an institution” is not “a product of that institution” but is instead “a reflection of the disparities that exist outside of it” in society. His pivot on disparate impact shows, I think, how a deeply pessimistic view of the pervasiveness of racism in society can cut in either a leftward or rightward direction.
Question: And how does his dissent in Brumfield v. Cain (2015), which affirmed that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally disabled, figure into all of this?
Robin: For Thomas, Brumfield is the story of two black men. One is Kevan Brumfield, whose father abandoned him when he was young and who murdered a police officer named Betty Smothers. The other is Warrick Dunn, who was the child of Smothers. Dunn’s father also abandoned him when he was young. But after his mother was murdered by Brumfield, Dunn not only managed to raise his five younger brothers and sisters but also became an NFL player.
For Thomas, the case is “a study in contrasts” between these two black men, both abandoned by their fathers, but one of whom rose to become the patriarch he never had, providing an example for and leadership to the black community. Thomas believes the only way to create more Warrick Dunns is to punish, harshly, all the Kevan Brumfields. That might leave some black sons without black fathers, but it will ensure, in Thomas’ view, that the black fathers who remain are the kinds of patriarchs Thomas believes the black community depends upon.
I should add here that so jarring and explosive is Thomas’ analysis in this case that Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined part of Thomas’ opinion, took flight exactly at the point when he talks about these two men. Alito, with Roberts, claimed that the story had nothing to do with the legal analysis of the case, which was, as you say, about the constitutionality of executing the mentally disabled. But for Thomas, those two black men, that study in contrasts, is really what the case is all about.
Question: As I understood your book, unbridled capitalism – largely unencumbered by the constraints of democracy and ruled by “men of money” – is a key tenet of Thomas’ life philosophy and jurisprudence. Is that correct? If so, please explain how this interacts with his views on race.
Robin: It’s definitely correct. Thomas’ commitment to capitalism is the corollary of his skepticism of politics. It’s not that Thomas believes black people will get a fair shake under capitalism or that racism is not rife throughout the market. Instead, he thinks the market offers black people niches, spaces apart from white people, where they can accumulate wealth that will then serve the black community.
Interestingly, Thomas is not partial to wage labor; his vision focuses much more on black entrepreneurialism. The reason for that, it’s clear, is that he thinks waged black laborers will often find themselves working for white employers. The whole goal of black business is so that black people won’t have to be in the position of working for white people, which Thomas sees as reminiscent of the kind of domination and dependency that black people experience when they involve themselves in the political sphere.
Question: Thomas’ understanding of the commerce clause is radically different from that of Chief Justice John Marshall as set out in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) – consider, for example, Thomas’s lone concurrence in United States v. Lopez (1995) and his lone dissent in Gonzales v. Raich (2005). What do these outlier opinions tell us about how Thomas thinks federal power gets distributed in society and how that power affects the lives of African Americans?
Robin: As Thomas argued throughout the 1980s and at his Senate confirmation hearing, the expansion of national regulatory power is at the heart of the black-freedom struggle and civil-rights liberalism, and the commerce clause is the constitutional centerpiece of that effort. Thomas understands this full well.
Thomas’ project is to bring about an ideological shift in the black community; he wants black people to stop looking at the federal government as the benevolent agent of black interests and to start looking at the economy as a more favorable space for black interests – not a nationally regulated economy but a deregulated economy, in which there will be more niches, he believes, for black entrepreneurs.
In order to do that, he believes, this benign view of federal power and the commerce clause must be confronted. Head on. That’s what leads him to such a radically restrictive view of what constitutes commerce: He understands that the more expansive a view we have of commerce, the more that will allow the federal government to act on behalf of African Americans and other groups. “With each new locution,” Thomas writes of our battles over the definition of commerce, “federal power expands, but never contracts.” So he aims to cut that project of expansion off at the knees: at the very interpretation of what commerce means.
Question: Thomas filed a lone dissent in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011), in which he wrote: “The practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that ‘the freedom of speech,’ as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.” How does that square with his free-speech jurisprudence?
Robin: Going back to 1987, Thomas has been extremely interested in securing for property and money and the market the same sacred status that the rights of speech and belief then had in the liberal imagination. So it’s no accident that his most important First Amendment opinions involve the extension of free-speech rights, the right to expression, to moneyed and commercial interests. We saw this most recently in the concurrence he wrote in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), which was joined only by Justice Neil Gorsuch. Conversely, his interest in free speech, as that term is understood by liberals, is not particularly robust. His restrictive view of free speech in Entertainment Merchants is illustrative. What’s more interesting about that opinion, to me, is how much it reveals about Thomas’ view of the authority and power of parents, particularly fathers, which he thinks is, or at least should be, extensive.
Question: Explain how Thomas’ robust defense of Second Amendment rights fits with his idea of “the Black Constitution,” as you term it.
Robin: One of the keystones of the struggle for emancipation during the 19th century was the right of black people to arm themselves against white people. First against white masters under slavery, then against white supremacists under Jim Crow. The black radical tradition has long championed this right as critical to black freedom, as seeing the right to arms as the foundation of black expression and black manhood. (Elaine Brown, who chaired the Black Panther Party in the 1970s, even wrote and recorded a song, “The End of Silence,” that makes these connections between black arms, black men and black speech explicit.) In Thomas’ view of the Black Constitution, which he thinks was created by the struggle over slavery and emancipation, the right to bear arms is equally central. His opinion in McDonald v. Chicago (2010) is an extended meditation on these connections.
Question: In your discussion of “the White Constitution,” you write of a society “in a permanent state of tension, forever suspended between promise and betrayal.” Tell us more about that society and its role in Thomas’ philosophy.
Robin: Like many conservatives, Thomas has a deep uneasiness about life being too easy, about a society in which the avenues of social advancement have been cleared of hurdles and obstacles. And like many conservatives, he mistakenly believes that liberalism has created such a society. (The truth, of course, is that many of these obstacles and hurdles remain.) The result of that society, he thinks, is not that the wrong people get ahead — that’s not Thomas’ concern, and here he departs from many conservatives — but rather that black people are disabled by its comfort and ease.
A person’s and a people’s development, he thinks, depends upon the adversity they face, and the overcoming of that adversity; that, Thomas says, is where freedom lies. So there needs to be a tension in any society between the vision of advancement, the hope for moving forward, and its frustration. If things get too tractable, if advancement is too easy, if frustration is not felt, black people won’t develop the kinds of habits and discipline that sustained them through the long night of slavery and Jim Crow.
One of the reasons Thomas believes in what I call the White Constitution is that he thinks it will maintain the conditions of harshness and adversity that black people need in order to develop those habits and that discipline.
Question: In a new documentary, Thomas speaks critically of those who opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court: “This is the wrong black guy; he has to be destroyed. Just say it!” In another segment he added: “There are different sets of rules for different people. If you criticize a black person who is more liberal, you’re racist, whereas you can do whatever to me, or to now Ben Carson, that’s fine because you’re not really black because you’re not doing what we expect black people to do.”
What do you make of this statement?
Robin: Like Thomas’ testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing, it’s a combination of truth and untruth.
The truth is that Thomas has been subjected to an astonishing amount of racist criticism from liberals and the left that would simply not be leveled at him if he were white or liberal. The full range of charges and criticism that have been lodged against him, in fact, are reminiscent of the charges and criticisms that were made against Thurgood Marshall on the court, not simply by right-wingers, but even by liberals like Archibald Cox, who said that “Marshall may not be very bright or hard-working but he deserves credit for picking the best law clerks in town.”
Thomas’ statement also reflects another truth, which is that a lot of white people don’t realize or recognize the full diversity of opinions among African Americans, that there is a long tradition of black conservatism, that black nationalism assumes a variety of guises, and so on. So when white people — and this is true of the white left and the white right — listen to Thomas, they can’t hear what he’s saying because they have a prior set of beliefs about what it is that black people must think. So all that is true.
The untruth, the falseness, is twofold. First, before Anita Hill, many Democrats were going to vote for Thomas; he had widespread support in the black community. Even though his Senate testimony was underwhelming, liberals got very little traction in mounting opposition. I happen to think, like many, that there is overwhelming evidence that Anita Hill told the truth and Thomas lied. So his protestations here misconstrue how much support he had, even among the Democrats, before Hill’s allegations were made public, and fail to confront his own role in harassing Hill.
But the untruth — not in the sense of a lie, but of the failure to tell the whole truth — goes beyond that. It’s representative of Thomas’ general view of racism. As I show in the book, in Thomas’ view, racism assumes the form of racial stigmas and unconscious bias (which makes his view not unlike that of many contemporary social scientists). This is a view of racism that is focused overwhelmingly on verbal acts and gestures rather than material disparities. So Thomas sees racism in one respect — not limited to how he’s been treated, it should be said — but not in others.
Thomas also sees those stigmas and that bias operating in a very rarefied atmosphere: that of the black professional class, where ambitious strivers like him are subjected to a certain kind of suspicion about their talents and abilities. He doesn’t see those stigmas operating in the same way for the black poor or the black working class. Now Thomas has a complicated set of beliefs that would explain that disjuncture, which I explore in the book — in other words, I don’t think he’s merely being self-serving or hypocritical or inconsistent here — but nevertheless, it’s ultimately a very limited worldview.
Question: You end “Enigma” on an unusual note – the need to realize something largely ignored yet fundamental: “[T]he task at hand,” you write, “is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.” Whose task is this? And with what different premises should we approach our view of Thomas?
Robin: That’s a set of comments addressed both to the left and to Americans who have given up on the idea that politics — whether movements in the streets or action by the state — can transform social conditions. Thomas believes that racism is so fixed and permanent that it cannot be altered by political action. In this regard, I think his views are emblematic rather than idiosyncratic. The conclusions he draws from that belief are not widely shared, but the underlying assumptions are. I think that so long as people share that worldview, we’ll never see the kind of transformative politics and genuinely mass action that we saw in earlier moments of the black freedom struggle or other struggles in this nation’s history.