It is hard, though, to quarrel too much with a book that solves the great Thomas mystery: his legendary silence. One conventional explanation is that Thomas is still smarting from the Anita Hill scandal that occupied his confirmation hearing, an explanation that seems less plausible with every passing year. Merida and Fletcher explain his courtroom demeanor by suggesting that silence is the closest Thomas can come to opting out of the scripts that eddy around him. "If you can't be free," the poet Rita Dove writes, "be a mystery." It is a serious indictment of race relations in this country that, in 2007, the nation's most powerful African Americans are still not permitted to be individuals. And because the book makes that case -- as well as many others -- in such a personal and non-ideological way, it may be heard. This book's greatest achievement is that the "supreme discomfort" of the title initially belongs to Thomas but, in the end, becomes our own.
Many people, left and right, think that Thomas believes racism is over in America. Conservatives believe it because they believe it and think of Thomas as one of them. Liberals believe it because they can't otherwise fathom why Thomas seems so uninterested in the fight for equality.
But they've got it precisely backwards. Thomas doesn't believe racism is gone in America. Thomas believes racism is irrevocably ingrained in America. In this respect, he draws from a deep Black Conservative tradition that sees little hope in the full-frontal assault for civil rights. Rather, they think the only way equality will be achieved in America is by absorbing everything racism has to throw at you, and still excelling. What this means differs for different theorists (the Black Conservative tradition contains men as widely varied as Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey), but the strain of thought tends to accept racism as a fact and demand Black people succeed anyway.
Thomas has faced an incredible share of racism in his life--as a child, as a seminary student, in law school. He considers the affirmative action (that he admits he received) to be a form of patronizing racism as well. In the face of that, Thomas still has risen to be one of the most powerful and most influential men in the country. Were he not so famously quiet and reserved (another characteristic of Black Conservatives is self-discipline), you can almost hear him taunting: Is that the best you got?
I don't identify with the Black Conservative movement--I'm idealistic enough to think that racism can be eradicated, and I think that the obstacles institutional racism erects are just too high for but a rarefied few to scale them. I also don't know what it would mean for a White person to buy into a Black Conservative view of the permanence of racism (see below). But nonetheless, I think Thomas' views are important, for liberals and for conservatives. Liberals need to understand the perspective he's coming from, one that is not running from Black thought but rather is embracing a particular strand. They can oppose that strain, of course, as I do, but argumentative ethics require that we accurately identify the position of our opponents before we blast it.
But conservatives, especially, need to understand this foundation of Thomas' politics and jurisprudence. This split Thomas has with White conservativism is very deep--one camp believes racism is permanent, the other thinks that it has been eliminated. That's a major gap. Basically, I think it is qualitatively different for a Black person versus a White person to say "racism is permanent." The reason the former says it is because the latter isn't willing to do anything about it. As a White person (liberal or conservative) hearing the Black Conservative critique, my only ethical response is to try and prove him wrong. I may fail at it--but virtually any framework that believes racism is bad cannot then allow White people to concede to it without a fight. Because White conservatives don't grapple with Thomas' basic observation of racial dynamics, they avoid this tension--but only at the cost of not taking one of their own champions seriously.