The rise of the Supreme Court’s most controversial justice.
SUPREME DISCOMFORT The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas
By Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher
Doubleday. 422 pp. $26.95
Justice Clarence Thomas is the Supreme Court’s most reclusive member, which is saying something. Deeply distrustful of the media, the justice also almost never speaks from the bench. As a powerful official who remains opaque to the public, he is a prime candidate for a careful, fairminded biography. In delivering it, Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher have done some quiet justice of their own.
shows that two competing, racially charged narratives govern how Thomas — like many black conservatives — is perceived and treated. The first storyline is that of the Uncle Tom: the race-traitor who sides with whites for personal advantage. For Thomas, the consequences of being seen this way have been harsh. The book describes how the Rev. Al Sharpton led a group of picketers outside Thomas’s home, how some African Americans have called for the community to stop naming its children “Clarence” and how a woman stopped Thomas and a friend in the library in his home town of Savannah in May 2001 so she could “see what a group of Uncle Toms look like.”
If liberals often cast Thomas as a quisling, conservatives tend to cast him as someone who has achieved the American Dream by pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Thomas, a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, seems to find this narrative more congenial, but it has its own bite. This storyline assumes a meritocratic America free of racial prejudice — an assumption the justice certainly does not hold.
Lost between these two competing stories is the tale of an individual, and that is the one brought to life by Merida and Fletcher, journalists at The Washington Post. Their biography deftly puts paid to both conventional narratives; after all, we do not expect Uncle Toms to have engaged in radical black student activism, nor do we expect Horatio Alger heroes to believe America is irredeemably racist. But that is too faint praise for Supreme Discomfort. By the end of the book, we see the injustice that stock narra-