Among the many footnotes to the recent Supreme Court decision are the astonishing taped recordings of its proceedings. Never before have we had the opportunity to hear the justices sound out the nuances of their arguments and their ideologies. Students, scholars and autodidacts will have a field day examining these recordings, as well they should.
But as future generations ponder these distant voices, don't be surprised if someone asks, "Wasn't there once a black man on the Supreme Court?" Such a question would be appropriately ironic in light of the events surrounding this election.
Thousands of African-American votes in Florida remain uncounted; hundreds of African-Americans were intimidated or unlawfully turned away from the polls; half a dozen lawsuits have been filed by angry African-American advocacy groups and individuals. Clearly, black voters in Florida faced unprecedented obstacles in attempting to exercise their rights. That's something all Americans -- particularly those who publicly proclaim their patriotic fervor and their love of the people -- should be concerned about.
Clarence Thomas, the only African-American jurist on the Supreme Court, may, in fact, have such concerns. He may be disturbed by black voters in Little Haiti, for example, who were turned away from the polls. He may be agonizing over the 9,000 African-American votes in Duval County that were never counted. He could, for all we know, cry on his wife's shoulders each night as he contemplates the specter of Florida state troopers erecting roadblocks near polling places.
Chances are, the first Supreme Court justice in history to criticize the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling outlawing school segregation, couldn't care less. He is, after all, the kind of conservative jurist for whom time stands still, whose strict constructionism takes him back to the days of Thomas Jefferson. It seems completely lost on Thomas that had he been alive in 1789, he would stand a snowball's chance in hell of doing anything more prestigious than toting Tom Jefferson's wood or drawing a bath for Lighthorse Harry Lee.
But how Thomas reasons and what he really thinks is impossible to know. Because those Supreme Court recordings testify loudly to his absolute silence. Every other justice had the courtesy to at least go on the record. Not Thomas. He said nothing.
The ironies are rich. Thomas is on the court precisely because he has nothing to say. He was put there as a reminder that white conservatives aren't necessarily prejudiced against the right black people, and that Dixiecrats were wrong when they said you couldn't trust uppity African-Americans. You can trust 'em -- if you find the right one.
On the other hand, Thomas' deafening silence is a sad metaphor for the voiceless, faceless black masses who were disfranchised in this election. The rage propounded by the court, which soiled itself in the political scatology of this ill-fated election, will not soon disappear in the black community. And, although no one expected him to support the basic principle of "count the damn votes" articulated by most African-Americans, it will be hard to overlook the fact that Clarence Thomas did not have the guts to even open his mouth.
In archival video clips, Justice Thomas can be seen running his mouth nonstop, disturbing the dignity of the other justices with personal minutiae. But when it really counts, when he could have elected to have an impact and leave a lasting record -- no matter how ill-conceived -- the brother ain't got nothing to say.
So, if in the future, your grandson or daughter asks, "Wasn't there a black man once on the Supreme Court?" please look them in the eye and do not flinch. Tell them in no uncertain terms that the answer is Yes. And then tell them that the name of that black man was the late, great Thurgood Marshall. Because for all intents and purposes, Clarence Thomas does not exist.
Syl Jones, of Minnetonka, is a playwright, journalist and communications consultant.
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