Clarence Thomas on His Opposition to Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court Justice on fighting racial inequality as a student in the 1960s and why he opposes affirmative action now
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

I wanted to be a priest. That was the only firm goal I ever had. But I became bitter about the church’s silence on racism. When I lost that vocation at 19, I was adrift. I came to Holy Cross as a transfer student in the fall of 1968. There were about two dozen black students on campus. It was hard to be that small a group in this isolated place. We formed a black students union. A year later, I went along with living on a black corridor, even though I objected to it. I saw no reason to come to a white school and segregate ourselves. That said, I understood how hard it was to be isolated.

In late 1969 we walked out. Holy Cross had suspended black kids at a protest but not most of the white kids. We thought it was an injustice. We made the decision to quit, and then I began to wonder about the consequences. If we were not allowed to come back, I was done. There was no way I could have faced my grandfather or moved back home to Savannah. I have no idea where I could have gone to school. I thank God that Holy Cross reversed the suspensions and allowed us to come back.

We get into platitudes about who’s for affirmative action or who’s against it, and we do nothing to fix the real problems. So many of our conversations have been dishonest. We talk about civil rights. I’ve got the right to play the piano. I don’t know how to play a note. So what good is a piano? You need a way to access [a given] right. We play to these stereotypes, instead of treating people as individuals. You can take kids who want to work hard and put too much on them too soon. And then we blame them if they don’t succeed.

I’m at a different point in my life. I can now walk where I used to run. I can now think where I used to react. I know more. I looked up at the beginning of this term and realized that only two members of the court had been there longer than I’ve been there. I do believe education is the second door to freedom. I’m the product of Catholic schools. I was taught there’s no real difference between blacks and whites, and I never thought there was supposed to be an easier or different road for us. I never felt I was at Holy Cross to prove a point to anybody. I was there to learn. As difficult as it was to study there, it made learning a wonderful experience. — As told to Diane Brady

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