During a speech to Palm Beach Atlantic University, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made some insightful and balanced comments concerning race:
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, Georgia, 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. . . . That’s a part of the deal.
Thank you, Clarence Thomas. We live in a media culture that publishes a constant stream of racially charged news. Most people in America today think racism is a big issue, and because of that, racism has become a big issue. Let me give you an example of what Clarence Thomas would call “a slight.”
When I am out and about, one of my favorite things to do is people watch. Recently, I was at Kroger shopping with a friend of mine. We were in the produce section, and a middle-aged black woman was on a shopping cart collision course with a middle-aged white man. She stopped short with a smile on her face to let him pass. He did not acknowledge her kind gesture.
He didn’t even look at her. And he didn’t pass. He parked his cart directly in front of her cart and started perusing the avocadoes. Her face wilted; she backed up her cart and pushed it away, visibly less cheerful.
Later, I saw that same woman when my friend and I were ready to check out. She had regained some of her former cheerfulness. She and we approached the same checkout lane, and my friend, who was not paying attention at all, cut her off without realizing it. I tried sheepishly to indicate I was sorry, but she was crestfallen yet again.
On the way home, I thought about this woman. I thought about what she might take from her run-ins with “white people” that day. Perhaps she had never really considered white people to be all that racist. Perhaps her experiences with white people had been generally positive up to that point. But that night, when every news station on the TV was talking about the widespread American epidemic of racism, she thought, “You know, I think most white people are racist.” And if that happened, there would be no end to the amount of confirmation she would be able to collect afterward.
But, in reality, racism didn’t have anything to do with her experience at Kroger. That same middle-aged white dude kept on being rude to everyone regardless of race. He was just a jerk. You know those people that you see, and you think, “Man, that guy just needs a stiff punch in the face… or a hug.” That guy was one of those guys.
And I know my friend is just a space cadet. He’s one of the kindest people I know, and he was really disappointed with himself when I told him this story.
Anyway, Clarence Thomas lived in a world where slights were constant, and many of them may have been racially motivated. But he didn’t view them that way, because that’s not helpful. He didn’t become a Supreme Court Justice by taking every little insult straight to heart. He overcame obstacles. He let insults and racism slide off his back. ((And as an aside, he mentioned that the worst treatment he ever received was from “northern liberal elites.” How’s that for an irony…))
The sooner we stop obssessing over race, the sooner we can start to heal racial divides. I don’t always agree with Justice Clarence Thomas. But on this, he is spot on.