On Friday, June 24th, Justice Clarence Thomas got something he’s sought his entire adult life: recognition. Writing in support of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Thomas recommended that the Court, as a next move, strike down a half century’s worth of “demonstrably erroneous” precedents establishing the right to contraception, the right to same-sex sexual conduct, and the right to same-sex marriage. On television and across the Internet, commentators took notice.
Insiders have long known that Thomas is the right’s pacesetter on the Court, laying out positions that initially seem extreme yet eventually get adopted. For years, Thomas pulled Justice Antonin Scalia—even, on occasion, Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice William Rehnquist—to the right on issues of crime and punishment. His opinions on campaign finance, once seen as recklessly deregulatory, now command a majority. In 1997, Thomas signalled his belief that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms, a fringe position that the Court would come to accept, eleven years later, in District of Columbia v. Heller. Even Thomas’s extraordinary claims, in a concurring opinion three years ago, about the racist foundations of abortion and birth control, found their way into a footnote in the Court’s recent abortion decision.
Despite this track record of stealth and success, liberals have often dismissed Thomas as stupid or a sellout, a patsy and a puppet, the Justice who cannot speak. That era is over. Yet Thomas’s significance far outstrips his captaincy of the Court’s war on liberalism. The most powerful Black man in America, Thomas is also our most symptomatic public intellectual, setting out a terrifying vision of race, rights, and violence that’s fast becoming a description of everyday life. It’s no longer a matter of Clarence Thomas’s Court. Increasingly, it’s Clarence Thomas’s America. [Continue reading…]