“If I say things are splendid,
Someone will be offended.
If I say things are awful,
It might just be unlawful.”
—Mose Allison, “I’m Not Talkin’”
On June 13, an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education asked me if I would be interested in writing a commentary about the upcoming Supreme Court decision on the affirmative action case concerning college admissions. It was a common feeling that the current court, dominated by conservatives, would side with the plaintiffs in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and end affirmative action in college admissions, just as it had done in 2022 in Dobbs, State Health Officer of the Mississippi Department of Health, et al v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, et al that overturned Roe v. Wade and ended federally protected abortion. This turn toward dismantling the legality of certain key liberal or leftist political and social aims that arose in the 1960s is, to borrow from the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Zombies, the time of the season. My friend, the late Stanley Crouch, always signed his letters “Victory is Assured.” But victory is never assured. Maybe the blues singers had it right all along: life is not about winning but slowing or pausing briefly the rate at which you lose.
I weighed the Chronicle’s offer and the nature of the subject. I had to decide if there was anything worth saying about the decision. If affirmative action in college admissions ended, well, so what? Black folk had a college-educated elite before affirmative action came along and they would continue to have one if it ended. Black kids who were interested in going to college would continue to apply. Black kids who were interested in attending elite schools like Harvard, Chicago, Duke, and Stanford, would continue to apply to those schools. And these elite schools would continue to find ways to admit them, if admitting Black kids remained important to them and if it required some new ingenuity to do so. (Although some Black kids I have taught are a bit nonplussed that it should require some special ingenuity for them to attend elite colleges.) I could see only that such admissions, with the end of a legally sanctioned affirmative action, would become, if anything, more important to these schools. Besides, the largest class of beneficiaries of affirmative action are White women, as scholars, liberal and conservative, have noted, and that is not going to end.
This turn toward dismantling the legality of certain key liberal or leftist political and social aims that arose in the 1960s is, to borrow from the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Zombies, the time of the season.
In this sense, a decision against affirmation action was not the end of the world, not even the beginning of the end of the world. It simply meant, in the cat-and-mouse game of conservatives v. leftists in the culture wars, a change in tactics and a re-routed strategy. If anything, the leftists might relish the challenge of foiling the conservatives in the midst of the conservatives’ long-sought victory of, as sociologist Orlando Patterson so sarcastically put it, protecting the tender feelings or defending against the embarrassment of failure of put-upon Black kids mismatched at high-status schools. In this battle of the wills over something that is, in this instance, largely symbolic (comparatively speaking, an infinitesimally small number of Black kids attend elite colleges), the left can hardly afford to show it is less committed than its avowed benighted enemies.
Conceding that ending college admissions affirmative action might create true inconveniences for those convinced of the efficacy of the policy but nothing more than that, it still might be worthwhile to comment on the decision, which came down on June 29 and was, as predicted, for the plaintiffs.
I decided that I wanted to write a commentary that focused on Black conservatives. One reason for this was obvious: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is one of the most famous (or infamous, take your pick) Black conservatives in the country. I was certain that if the court overturned college admissions affirmative action, Thomas would write the majority decision or a lengthy concurrence. He did the latter.
Black conservatives, by and large, are opposed to affirmative action. There are notable exceptions in Republican ranks like Condoleezza Rice and the late Colin Powell, but there is little hope of a Black succeeding in conservative circles as a proponent of affirmative action. It is, for Blacks, the litmus test of conservative commitment.
For Thomas, finally overturning affirmative action is both a triumph and a form of retribution. Part of his dislike of affirmative action is personal and biographical as he relates in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son (2007): the trials of Black students at Holy Cross, his unhappiness at Yale Law School, his inability to get a corporate job in Atlanta because he was tainted by the brush of affirmative action (a dumb Negro in a smart White school who got grades he did not earn), his being appointed assistant secretary in the Department of Education in 1981 under Reagan after first turning down being assistant secretary for civil rights, “insulted” by both that offer and the Education job. (See Thomas’s 1991 essay, “No Room at the Inn: The Loneliness of the Black Conservative.”)
He wound up running the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) for about eight years. He felt that these were all “race” jobs, and so he was trapped in a perverse cycle of affirmative action promotions, that he had been a victim of affirmative action by both liberals when in college and by Republicans in his professional career. Also, the attacks he endured from liberal Blacks once he was, shall we say, “outed” as a conservative after attending the Fairmount Conference, organized by Black free market economist Thomas Sowell, in San Francisco in 1980, embittered him, not without some justification, toward all liberals and leftists.
His Black bourgeois liberal and leftist “betters” vilified him, the little “Geechee” boy from Pin Point, Reagan’s dumb, dark-skinned lawn jockey. This culminated in his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1991. There, he was put in the untenable position of making a “race” appeal to Blacks to support him as a Black victim as his character and his abilities were attacked by Black and White liberals. Black conservatives are not supposed to play the race victim card. Moreover, he had to make this appeal while being cynically used by Republican president George H. W. Bush as an affirmative action pick to occupy the Black seat on the Supreme Court, created by the appointment of legal giant Thurgood Marshall by Democratic president Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
Would Thomas have been appointed to the court had the vacated seat been occupied by a White? Would Thomas today give an honest answer to that question? He never competed against Whites for any of his appointments, in much the same way neither Kamala Harris nor Ketanji Brown Jackson really competed against men or Whites or Asians, as President Biden made it clear that he was specifically appointing Black women. Why do Black people have to be selected on the basis of making up for past discrimination, as something “historic”? As if White liberals recognizing past discrimination have now decided to do a Black person a favor? Why could not both women have been selected because Biden insisted they were the best available to do the job? White liberals and conservatives can work the same game. Every Black person who has played at the affirmative action table can sing Paul McCartney’s line, “You should have seen me with the poker man … / Just in the nick of time I looked at his hand.”
In any case, Thomas’s jobs were earmarked for him by his race. The confirmation ordeal could only have made him more determined than ever to settle scores with his enemies. He would not be human if he did not want his enemies to feel the lash of his decisions. If they hate him, then he would give them things to really hate him for! God willing, he would hope to outlast them.
Would Thomas have been appointed to the court had the vacated seat been occupied by a White? Would Thomas today give an honest answer to that question? He never competed against Whites for any of his appointments, in much the same way neither Kamala Harris nor Ketanji Brown Jackson really competed against men or Whites or Asians, as President Biden made it clear that he was specifically appointing Black women.
Another reason I chose to write the commentary for the Chronicle was personal. In the spring of 2020, I taught a course for African and African American Studies entitled “Black Conservatives and Their Discontent: African Americans and Conservatism in America.” I had long wanted to teach such a course. My AFAS colleagues thought it a fine idea to offer such a course. One offered the idea of including conservatism in Africa and making it a course on conservatism in the African diaspora. A great idea, except I am not equipped to teach that—yet. So many people liberal and conservative have expressed surprise that I am able to teach such a course for a Black Studies Department. I tell them I am dedicated to understanding the varieties of Black people and their experiences. “And,” I added, “My department thinks that is a worthy goal.” It was vitally important to me to write something that would include my experience with that course. This I did.
Some who read the piece told me they appreciated that I did not vilify Black conservatives, which indicated to me that many think it is far more common than it deserves to be. Vilification has its place in human affairs, certainly, in partisan politics. Thomas and other Black conservatives have been vilified by their liberal and leftist foes but they themselves have vilified with equal energy, if not quite with equal effect. I am not opposed to vilification. It would be naïve for me to say such a thing. But I am not a devotee of partisan politics and would not serve my readers well by giving them what they are already being surfeited with, vituperation and execration.
I was listening to a lot of blues records when I wrote the piece. Those songs, that art, taught me that being Black ought absolutely to be unsentimental, devoid of outrage, self-pity, nostalgia, and chauvinism. The blues singers taught me that being Black is a discipline, tough, with a gimlet-eyed view of the world and committing to the endeavor to accept the condition, the cost of living in it. I aspire to be a bluesman.