"Black folks aren't going to leave the house at a time like this."
These were words spoken by a black Master Sergeant in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1967. The Sergeant and I were stationed at Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia. My friend was responding to my astonishment that the streets of Hinesville were silent and empty at a time when other Americans were weeping, raging and lighting candles across America. But in Hinesville, Georgia, black women and men knew that the backlash to any protest or public mourning might be fatal.
I recall this because of a recent speech by Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, reported by Charles Blow of the New York Times. Talking about racism in America, Thomas said, "My sadness is that we are probably today more race- and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Ga., to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up."
"Now, name a day it doesn't come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn't look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I'd still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them -- left them out."
"Rarely did the issue of race come up." In what alternate universe did he orbit?
The Hinesville/Savannah area had whites-only private drinking clubs that hosted KKK parties. I know. I saw. In some secluded rural communities, Confederate flags hung from every porch, as if daring a person of color to just try walking through. It was still like this in the '90s, when my wife and I drove the back roads of Georgia and South Carolina. As an Army Officer, I defended several black soldiers in Courts Martial proceedings who had been falsely accused, in significant part because of explicit racism on the part of their superiors. The N-word was constant -- snarled evidence of racism nearly every day of the year I spent in Hinesville and Savannah.
At the time of his nomination, some heralded his ascension as representation of "equal opportunity" for all. But his appointment had nothing to do with advancing racial equity. It was part of a conservative strategy to deny the persistent toxicity of a racist society by placing a racism-denier on the nation's highest court. George H. W. Bush, and many conservatives, then and now, knew that a conservative man of color could reject legislative remedies to racism with relative impunity. When a person who enjoys white privilege (which we white folks all do), racism-denial could be construed as self-interest or protection of our own privilege. Thomas is a surrogate for this perpetuation of white privilege. When a black man diminishes or dismisses the reality of racism, how can one argue?
But the reality, then and now, doesn't conform to Thomas' twisted view of reality. In my New York City school, every single boy of color I've spoken with has experienced racial profiling; being stopped and frisked, being followed in stores, being unable to hail a cab, being showered with racist expletives. No white student has experienced any of these things.
Parents of color have been assumed to be members of our building staff by thoughtless visitors. The unemployment rate among black men is double or more than of white men in many urban areas. Incarceration rates reveal an epidemic of racism, as painfully demonstrated in Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
And Clarence Thomas says, "Every person in this room has endured a slight," as though a white person's encounter with a thoughtless store clerk is roughly equivalent.
He says if he were more sensitive about this he'd still be in Savannah. There are many among us who wish he were still in Savannah, or at least not in the Supreme Court building. His denial of racism, particularly in light of the power he holds as a Supreme Court Justice, is regressive and destructive.