Clarity (On Clarence Thomas and the Worth of Black Life) - The Feminist Wire

Clarity (On Clarence Thomas and the Worth of Black Life)

Yesterday, my dad sent me an article from Slate Magazine about a Supreme Court decision written by Clarence Thomas that effectively argued that a black man, John Thompson, does not deserve the $14 million that he was awarded as damages for his unwarranted imprisonment, even by the meager standards of prison justice we deal with in the contemporary United States.  Thompson served 14 years on death row for a crime he did not commit and 18 years in prison, wrongfully convicted because of evidence suppressed by five Louisiana prosecutors. (And yes, it matters to me that John Thompson, like my father and like Clarence Thomas is a black man in the United States.)   I want to be as surprised as I am outraged that out of all the conservative Supreme Court “Justices” it would be Clarence Thomas to write this decision, but that would be ridiculous.

I cannot forget that years ago my father told me that he considered it a “cruel joke” and an “insult” when he first heard the announcement that on the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, genius for justice and civil rights hero, a mediocre sellout Reagan appointee to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission named Clarence Thomas was named by Bush One as the person to succeed Marshall and become the second ever African American supreme court justice. I was only 11 years old when the national government blatantly showed, in hearings (which I was mostly not allowed to watch), that black men who disrespected, lied about and betrayed black women would be rewarded by white men (who could more quietly continue to do the same thing). Meanwhile, Thomas somehow claimed to be lynched by a fellow conservative and black female lawyer Anita Hill who spoke out against his practice of sexual harassment.

As psychologist and psychotherapist Dr. Alvin Wyman Walker says in The Conundrum of Clarence Thomas: An Attempt at a Psychodymanic Understanding “What can you say about a man who savages his sister?” (In reference to an instance when  (In)Justice Thomas called his sister dependent and pathological for receiving a welfare check…which come to find out she was using during a short time to support their sick relatives who Thomas had abandoned-not that it should actually matter why she was receiving a welfare check anyway.)  Indeed, what CAN you say about a man who savages his sister?  You can say that he will certainly not feel accountable to any of us, brethren included, that he will turn against anyone and especially anyone black if given the slightest opportunity.  And now Thomas has taken his opportunity to justify an attempted lynching (John Thompson narrowly escaped the electric chair seven times during his years on death row.)

It is not a surprise that the Supreme Court would want to invalidate a decision that a black man who is wrongfully convicted in Louisiana deserves 14 million dollars for the cruelty that he has experienced.  Imagine if ALL of the people of color wrongfully convicted with shady evidence received a million dollars for every year they have unjustly spent in prison.  Clarity.  This decision was written and voted on by people who KNOW that Thompson is only one of many many wrongfully convicted people of color who have been imprisoned because of they can be, because the worth of black life is so low that lazy prosecutors will pull in any person supposedly fitting the description of a black man of short to tall height wearing whatever with whatever haircut in order to advance their political agendas, and in a larger sense to maintain the illusion that justice exists in a land where it clearly does not.  And what makes me so angry about the fact that Clarence Thomas allowed himself to be used as the person who would enforce the consensus that a year in a black life is worthless, proving the worthlessness of all the investment his disappointed family and community made in his education and livelihood, is that this ongoing practice of treating black life as an almost worthless commodity, to be used and discarded is only possible because the participants in the justice system believe that black people are not part of a community that will stand up for them, that will come see about them, that will demand justice on each others behalf.  Clarence Thomas is bile in my mouth and a pain in my heart because in his every action, his sexual violence, his disrespect, his hard work to invalidate the claims of someone who has clearly been wronged, Clarence Thomas makes worthlessness look true.

So here is some black feminist clarity about who Clarence Thomas is in the still relevant words of the great black feminist poet June Jordan twenty years ago. Clarence Thomas is

“a hypocrite
a liar and a fake
a make-
believe Black man
a mediocre mediocrity of apple polish
brown nose cut-throat
and an insult to his elders
a menace to his peers
a hazard to the under seventeen
a joke
a serious mistake
a cynical disjuncture between race
and history
a cruel interlocutor between the needy
and relief
a bullet to the family
a bully to the female
a pietistic turncoat
and a trivializing renegade
a jerk
a cornball hustler and a trifling no ‘count crocodile
a sacrilegious opportunist
and a hitman for the pitiless.”*

And here is some more clarity.  That community that prosecutors and persecutors and all those who would devalue black life for their greed and gain bet on not existing and showing up…  That community that would demand and insist that black life is worth more than $14 million, that black life is worth justice and love and the transformation of a broken and heartbreaking society.  That community of men who stand up for their sisters, of people of all genders who stand up and speak out.  That community that would act on the truth that black life is a priceless contribution to the transformation of the universe.  That dedicated community being ourselves for each other.  That necessary community that is the true context of justice…  That’s us.

*From “Letter to Mrs. Virginia Thomas, Wife of Whatzhisname Lamentably Appointed to the Supreme Court, U.S.A,” by June Jordan in Kissing God GoodbyePoems 1991-1997 (Anchor Books, 1997)


  1. aliyyah i. abdur-rah

    April 6, 2011 at 5:52 am

    Whoa — thank you for bringing this to our attention and for writing so eloquently and honestly about this, Ms. Alexis Pauline Gumbs! And thank you for all the work you do on our collective behalf.

  2. Danielle

    April 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Thank you for this piece! It is great. Sadly I can't say it does much to curb my anger, but it helps me see others feel the same. It took it in a similar way, seeing that it was Clarence Thomas who wrote the judgement on why this man could not receive the money he rightfully deserves. I read the article and saw that they said the case does not exhibit a dangerous, pre-thought action on the part of the prosecutors. I almost died and swore a ton. So I was like nice, they want to make it worse with the Clarence Thomas opinion. Your article sums it up pretty much. He is a shame of a human and a horrible betrayer of his own family and community. Black life is valuable. Our (in)justice system will not allow this kind of precedent to be set because as you say, they would go bankrupt paying back all of the men (and women) who have been guilty of being black and next to nothing more. Even then, they'd still owe in my book.

    Its interesting because with all his denial of racial and economic injustice, I still see he is the target of racist beliefs. Of the conservative judges who have been caught taking funds and attending parties by the Koch brothers, I see the media was only taking a stab at Clarence Thomas. The "progressive" groups were quick to demonize him and plaster his face as a liar and a cheat while ignoring Scalia completely. I don't sympathize for him too much, but I find it funny that this man denies these things and their affects on people's real lives when it still happens to him.

  3. E

    April 6, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I watched the Anita Hill hearings as a girl and learned the same lesson. I always believed Anita Hill; she looked like one of my aunts. She is Patricia Hill Collins' 'black lady' in the flesh. I was shocked how the mainstream media treated those crazy out-of-the-blue calls from his Tea Party wife were treated as just a social call.