.The Conundrum of Clarence Thomas

The Conundrum of Clarence Thomas:
An Attempt at a Psychodynamic Understanding

By Alvin Wyman Walker, Ph.D., P.D., P.C.
Clinical Psychologist/Psychotherapist

I am talking about millions of men who have been skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement.
- - Aime Cesaire

What can you say about a man who attended Holy Cross College and Yale Law School as a beneficiary of affirmative action programs who currently asserts that blacks and other so-called minorities should lift themselves up by their own boot straps and is now virulently anti-affirmative action? What can be inferred about the familial feelings of someone who savages his sister before a conference of black conservatives for being dependent on welfare ("She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check, that's how dependent she is. . . .") but fails to mention to the audience that his sister's relatively brief period of unemployment was due to having to care for an invalid great-aunt? What can you adduce about the self concept of an osentsible black man who relates, "I don't fit in with whites and I don't fit in with blacks," and I went through a "self hate stage" where you "hate yourself for being part of a group that's gotten the hell kicked out of it. . .?" And what does it really mean for a putative African American to be championed by the likes of Dan Quayle, Strom Thurmond, a notorious race baiter like Jesse Helms, and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan?

In order to attempt to elucidate the conundrum that is Clarence Thomas, to generate hypotheses as to what makes him tick, a brief history is necessary.

Born into an extremely impoverished family in Pin Point, Georgia in 1948, Clarence Thomas' father deserted the family when he was a toddler. He lived with his mother, two siblings, and other family members until he was either 6, 7, or 8 years of age (Various sources are in dispute regarding his age at the time of separation from his mother). The mother's remarriage and her new husband's rejection of her offspring led to the rupture of the family and the dispersal of the children. He was then sent off to live with his grandparents in Savannah, Georgia. I suspect that this crucial traumatic event had a profound emotional and psychological impact on the subsequent development of Clarence Thomas.

When a young child is separated from the primary caretaker, the maternal figure in this case, an abandonment neurosis is one of the most typical outcomes. The symptomatology of such a neurosis is three pronged: The anguish created by what is experienced as an abandonment and the anguish triggered by every subsequent abandonment or rejection; devaluation and unconscious hostility toward the rejecting maternal figure; and lastly, self devaluation and vulnerability to recurrent depressions.

Clarence Thomas' grandfather was a small businessman who could afford to pay his grandson's tuition to the St. Benedict the Moor parochial school. And although Clarence Thomas often talks about his grandfather, I can find little mention of his grandmother. Could it be that his devaluation and unconscious hostility toward the rejecting maternal figure also generalized to the grandmother and, possibly, to other black women as well? I think that it is in this context that we can make sense of his distorted and pejorative description of his sister: "She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check, that's how dependent she is."

He is even ambivalent toward his grandfather whom he watched being humiliated by whites and who was so discombobulated by his interactions with whites that he had to have a drink before he was able to go to downtown Savannah to secure the yearly license necessary to operate his business. Indeed, a posture of abject servility is suggested when he imitates his grandfather's black, peasant speech: "Y'all goin' have mo' of a chance than me."

In rejecting his family of origin, Clarence Thomas also had to devalue himself and his black ethnicity and to strive mightily to deracinate himself, in a word, to strive to become as white as possible. His libidinal ties were displaced from his devalued caretakers on to his teachers, Sister Mary Vigilius Reidy and the other white nuns at the St. Benedict the Moor School, who seem to have been idealized. I suspect that it was his identification with the nuns at St. Benedict that led him to consider a religious vocation.

When he was in the 10th grade, he enrolled in a minor seminary outside of Savannah moving from an all black school to an all white one. His initial reaction to his fellow students is instructive: "When I walked in there and saw I was in a room with all these white kids, I just about died." This reaction seems to point up deep seated feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, and awe of his white classmates.

After completing high school at the minor seminary, he attended the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri from 1967 to 1968. It was during his stay at Immaculate Conception that he went through an extremely intense "self-hate stage" where you "hate yourself for being part of a group that's gotten the hell kicked out of them." He attempted to blend in by consciously trying to eradicate and bleach out his black ethnicity, by attempting to not act black and by studiously avoiding the use of black slang. His relative success in the attempt to deracinate himself is attested to by his current wife's aunt, Opal: "I can guarantee you I was surprised when I found out . . . [Virginia] was going out with a black man.

. . . But he was so nice, we forgot he was black and he treated her so well, all of his other qualities made up for his being black." Similarly, his father-in-law commented: "If you have any feelings about black color, you forget about it as soon as you start talking to him."

Deciding against a religious vocation, Clarence Thomas left the seminary. He then transferred to Holy Cross College which had started recruiting blacks after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. At Holy Cross, Clarence Thomas married a black woman, Kate Ambush, and fathered his only child, a son named Jamal. It should come as no surprise that this marriage eventually ended in a divorce which was finalized in 1984. That his marriage to a black woman would end in divorce seems to have been overdetermined given his devaluation of his family of origin, his unconscious hostility toward black women, and his marked ambivalence toward his own ethnicity.

It was also during this period that Thomas read El Hadj Malik Shabazz and briefly toyed with the notion of adopting a black nationalist posture. But as he put it, "We can seek revenge or we can seek prosperity." Clarence Thomas came down solidly on the side of prosperity and the prosperity he forged had the backing of largely white, conservative mentors who were inimical to the interests of African Americans.

By the time Clarence Thomas graduated from Yale Law School in 1974, he had begun to show signs of what appeared to be political conservatism. He spurned offers to practice public interest or civil rights law. As he put it, "I went to law school to be a lawyer, not a social worker."

It was at this point that Clarence Thomas hooked up with an important white, conservative mentor, John Danforth, who was Attorney General of Missouri. As an Assistant Attorney General on Danforth's staff, Clarence Thomas embroiled himself with black staff members by hanging a large, Confederate flag in his office. The message here was that he was not like those other blacks for his deepest identification lay elsewhere: He is identified with the aggressor very much like some of the Jewish inmates at Dachau and Buchenwald who attempted to alter their prison garb so that it looked like the uniform of their Nazi captors and went from copying the verbal aggression of the Gestapo to copying the bodily aggression toward fellow inmates.

Later, Clarence Thomas worked for two years as a attorney at Monsanto Chemical Co. and in 1979 went to Washington to again work for Danforth who had become a senator. In Washington, Thomas met another powerful conservative, Jay Parker, who took him under his wing. Although Thomas' mentor was ostensibly a black man, Parker had made a career of serving the interest of white conservatives. He was involved in the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and was a registered agent for the government of apartheid South Africa earning more than one million dollars for lobbying the African American community to oppose sanctions against South Africa. On the basis of this long and undistinguished carrer, it seems appropriate to consider Jay Parker a "honorary white." It was Jay Parker who brought Clarence Thomas to the attention of the White House which eventually led to his 7 1/2 year tenure as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When Clarence Thomas left EEOC in 1990 to become a federal appeals court judge, the agency had: Eliminated the use of so-called minority hiring goals and timetables by employers to correct racial, ethnic, and sex disparities; largely abandoned the use of class action lawsuits and instead, directed lawyers to press lawsuits on behalf of those who could show they had personally been hurt by discrimination; and yielded the agency's once dominant role on civil rights issues to the Justice Department.

During his 1990 judical confirmation hearing, Clarence Thomas acknowledged that "the worst event during my tenure" at EEOC was his discovery that the agency failed to keep track of more than 900 age discrimination cases, causing them to lapse under a statue that gave the agency two years to investigate such complaints. When Congress confronted the agency on this matter, Clarence Thomas was forced to concede that more than 900 cases had lapsed.

Eventually, however, Clarence Thomas had to admit that he had allowed the statue of limitation to run out on more than 13,000 cases. Critics allege that he failed as an administrator at EECC. They contend that Clarence Thomas both understated the number of lapsed cases and misled Congress.

However, this was not the first time Clarence Thomas balked at enforcing regulations he was legally obligated to uphold. In 1982 when he was Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, his office was under a federal court order to enforce civil rights laws in a timely fashion. Clarence Thomas simply refused to comply with the court order. He later admitted during a federal court hearing that he had "violated time frames," that he had substituted his "judgement as to what the policy should be for what the court order requires." and that he had violated "a court order rather grievously." Such flagrant violations of regulations he was mandated to uphold is strongly suggestive of a lack of integrity and hint at superego lacunae or holes in his conscience.

I agree with Sheryl McCarthy who describes Clarence Thomas as follows: "Clarence Thomas . . . reveal[ed] the hollowness at his core. He dodged questions about everything. . . . Thomas' stock answer to inquiries about his prior statements and actions was: Yes, I said that, or I did that, but I didn't mean it. I meant something else. And I mean something else now. By weaseling his way out of every question of substance sometimes incredibly dismissing his prior behavior, Thomas revealed himself to be a chameleon, a man who will put on whatever face, assume whatever position necessary to please the group he is with."

The observation regarding the hollowness of his core, his chameleon-like quality, and his proclivity to assume whatever position necessary to please those with whom he is identified and dependent are important clues to Clarence Thomas' psychodynamic wellsprings. These three characteristics are common to a personality type first described in 1942 by Helene Deutsch. She delineated a group of individuals who lacked a consistent sense of identity and a source of inner direction. She called them as-if personalities because they derived their emotional experience and reactions from others with whom they were completely identified and dependent. The as-if personality adopts characteristics of persons who are particularly important to the individual or characteristics the individual believes would please those signficant others. In adopting these characteristics, the as-if personality does not appear to be acting, but experiences and manifests the assumed traits in a consistent and genuine manner. A change in relationships and situations usually prompts the as-if personality to discard previously held traits and to assume new ones that better fit the new circumstances.

We see that the way Clarence Thomas dealt with his early experience of extreme deprivation and the trauma of rejection and separation from his primary caretaker was to devalue both himself and his family of origin, to attempt to deracinate himself, to disavow as much of his blackness as possible, and to search out new figures, usually white ones, with whom he identified and assiduously sought to please. He guarded himself from the deep anguish and dysphoria of possible rejection by doing everything in his power to please these "mentors." Thus, I suspect that early on his pursuit of a religious vocation was basically motivated by desire to please Sister Mary Vigilius Reidy and the other nuns at the St. Benedict the Moor School. In other words, his pursuit of a religious vocation was outer-directed, not inner-directed. Similarly, I suspect that his so-called political conservatism is also outer-directed. Clarence Thomas was driven to adopt a conservative political posture in order to please his largely white, conservative mentors like John Danforth and the "honorary white," Jay Parker, men with whom he was completely identified and on whom he was dependent. In sum, Clarence Thomas' as-if personality trends seem to have developed out of his abandonment neurosis as characterological defenses aimed at shielding himself from the intense rage, anguish, and despair evoked by his early experience of rejection and abandonment. It was in this fashion that Clarence Thomas came to shroud his black skin with a white mask.

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