When Clarence Thomas's name comes up in conversation among black educators, the response isn't usually positive. Yet on Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court justice received a warm welcome from a gathering of appreciative leaders -- many of whom were presidents of historically black colleges and universities.
Thomas, who has long championed the colleges' mission, spoke before his captivated audience about his fondness for the colleges, betraying an intimate familiarity with their sports teams and recalling his childhood years. He also addressed his position on affirmative action, which he has consistently opposed in court rulings and dissents, and which explains much of black leaders' ire toward him.
As Leonard L. Haynes III, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, explained, Thomas has "played a key role" in litigation to "support the black colleges over the years." In the 1992 case United States v. Fordice, for example, Thomas voted with the 8-1 majority finding that Mississippi had not acted sufficiently to dismantle its two-tiered higher education system under equal protection and civil rights grounds. In a concurring opinion, Thomas wrote that policy makers should take care that desegregation efforts do not weaken black colleges.
In a speech in the early 1980s, as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas said, "I refuse to pursue desegregation policies which penalize black colleges. They were not the ones doing the discriminating. Realizing the importance of the continuing contribution of black colleges, I approach enforcement with great care. I insist that the state plans have as a major objective the enhancement of black institutions. This means better libraries, better programs, upgraded faculty and more funds. In that way, equality of educational opportunity was best realized."
Formerly assistant secretary of education for civil rights, Thomas himself never attended a historically black institution. But, he said at the breakfast talk, part of the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Conference in Washington, the colleges signified for him and others an aspiration to learn. Black students in the segregated South had no other colleges to look up to, or even sports teams to follow, he said.
"My first contact with the black colleges and the first sense that I had that I would be attending college actually started with Savannah State College [now University]," he told his audience. "And for those of us who are a little bit older and have the benefit of years, we can still remember ... strict segregation in the South."
And in researching his recent memoir, Thomas noted that there was virtually no treatment of the colleges in the local news media at the time. "It was sort of, not benign neglect, just sort of intentional ignorance about the schools."
So the question of how to treat HBCUs in the wake of the civil rights rulings was at the top of his mind when he joined the government.
"[W]hen I arrived in 1981 at the Department of Education, my only agenda on this issue among many other issues that were on my platter was to understand the problems facing the black colleges at that time," he said. "I didn’t have all the answers and I didn’t intend to have all the answers. But what I found was that some of the proposals ... made no sense to me."
"It makes people uncomfortable now," Thomas continued, "but there was quite a bit of thinking that if an institution remained predominantly black, that meant that it was in fact a vestige of a bygone era and therefore inferior...."
He explained that he agreed with his colleagues that the colleges were created in large part because of segregation and discrimination. But, he added, "I did not agree that [that meant] they were inferior." Citing the proportion of black graduates who still attend such colleges, he said that has "already proven not to be true."
As an example, Thomas cited a Department of Education plan to move the education program of Savannah State College to Armstrong State College (now Armstrong Atlantic State University), while moving Armstrong State's business program to Savannah State. The idea, he said, was that white students would follow the business program from the previously all-white Armstrong State across town to its new home at the historically black college.
"Well, that’s a theory, and it came very close to destroying Savannah State College," he said. "It’s those kinds of notions that bothered me when I got there, things that made no sense."
Informing Thomas's views is a conviction that just because a college is predominantly or all black -- he cited his Roman Catholic high school in Savannah, for example -- doesn't consign it to mediocrity. He took as one example a phrase used by those who sought to shut down schools on the basis that they upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine: their "social situation."
"What was the social situation? It was all black. That was the social situation, and because of that, it needed to be shut down."
He said that was the case when the civil rights division he led at the Education Department was evaluating black colleges in North Carolina. "I doubt anyone here would say they were segregated schools. Maybe predominantly black ... but our point was to make them quality institutions that were open to all and let the chips fall where they may.
"... [T]o solve a problem, prior discrimination, you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water."
But at the EEOC, he said, "I was told in no uncertain terms that the desegregation cases were not about education. I was told that repeatedly when I got into arguments. Now I know that I may have been naïve about certain things, but I thought at bottom, all of those cases ultimately were about education. And my point was, what were we fighting for then? Why do people allow their kids to be bused? ... I thought ... there were better educational opportunities.... Not one size fits all, but any size. A diversity of opportunities."
Perhaps inevitably, Thomas was asked to discuss his position on affirmative action, a policy that many in the room likely supported. Thomas responded, first, by asking what the term even means. "What is it? What is it? I think what you're doing in educating kids is affirmative action."
He continued, "We’re not talking about artificial numbers or anything. The people who almost destroyed Savannah State thought that they were doing something akin to affirmative action ... diversifying that student body.... My suggestion would be to stop the buzzwords and to focus more on the practical effects of what we’re doing."
Touching on his constitutional view of the issue, he said, "Now it may work for you today, but times change. And are you comfortable it’ll work for you tomorrow? So what I’m suggesting is that I don’t like the buzzwords. I happen to just sort of look at the bedrock principles and I work from there."
Beyond policies that affect college admissions, though, Thomas had a broader message on how to address the problems of African-American youth. "I think we all have a challenge, and it has been a lifelong challenge and one that I’ve been fighting for my entire adult life," he said. "Many of us were raised by grandparents and aunts and coaches and ministers, we all had people in our lives who made it possible for us to be here."
But today, he continued, "Music, culture, just so many things now say, Don’t be educated. And we’re going bankrupt trying to make them [do it]." The solution "starts with us," by changing that message to "Yes you can, it’s your responsibility," he said to cheers.
"So the point is that I think very well of what you're doing, and I truly believe that what you are doing will have quite a bit to do with how we solve the problems of our country and certainly the ones that are more specific to many of you, our shared race," he said.
At the end of Thomas's talk, Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier University, wrapped up by calling him "my brother," leading to applause from the crowd, before Haynes presented the judge with an award from the White House initative.