During last months forum with pastor Rick Warren at Warren's Saddleback Church Barack Obama identified Clarence Thomas as the supreme court justice who he would not have appointed. Obama went on to cite Thomas' thin legal record at the time of his appointment, and not their differences in opinion as the reason for why he would not have chosen Thomas. I didn't make much of Obama's point, but for some reason it stuck with me--mostly because more than any other period in my life, this year's presidential campaign has made it virtually impossible for me to get Clarence Thomas out of my mind. The impulse has not been to compare Obama to Thomas, but instead a strong longing to get Thomas's perspective on this historical moment. In all the conversations about how Obama may represent a new black politics, it has become easy to take full stock of the many ways in which the civil rights generation has been eclipsed and/or made ephemeral in American politics and public discourse writ large, a process that Clarence Thomas played a seminal role in shaping.
When George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas in 1991 for the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Thurgood Marshall it was clear to everyone that Thomas was picked primarily because he was black. Thomas's race was to pull double duty symbolizing both an allegiance between him and Thurgood Marshall in terms of physical appearance and political orientation, while at the same time representing a break, an advancement from Marshall in terms of both physical appearance and political orientation. In other words the blindness being promoted with Thomas's nomination was character not color. This is not to suggest that Thomas has no character, but rather that his political orientation was different from Marshall's, and it was to this distinction that we were to turn a blind eye.
This plan worked because rather than a full-fledged referendum on whether Thomas should be on the court, and a honest national conversation on what kind of judges should be on the court (this government has never given a reasonable justification why there shouldn't be a civil rights appointment to the supreme court), we became embroiled in whether Thomas had sexually harassed Anita Hill. The strong questioning that Thomas received from the senate judiciary committee prompted him to equate his nomination hearing to a "high tech lynching."
Since he was now one of their own, Republicans turned a blind eye to the fact that Thomas likely culled this rhetorical gem from his readings of Malcolm X or The Black Panthers, just as they are now turning a blind eye to Todd Palin's secessionist cravings, Sarah and Todd's neglect of their children as they pursue their own ambitions, and most importantly, Sarah Palin's incredibly thin resume that is ominous not because it sheds light on her lack of experience, but more so because it makes evident that she has neither the fluency in neither foreign nor fiscal policy to balance out her running mate's shortcomings much less this country's needs. Through her GOP affiliation Palin like Thomas has been rendered untouchable, and also like in Thomas' case, the person at the forefront of the opposition's strategy is Joe Biden.
Biden as some may remember was the chair of the senate judiciary committee during Thomas' nomination hearings, and therefore was the person inciting the "high tech lynching" to which Thomas referred. In spite of his working class background, and 'Average Joe' charm when placed across from either Palin or Thomas, Biden can not help the fact that he represents, "the man," "the white man." He's part of the "old boy" network that Palin alludes to, and the quintessential white liberal whose interactions with African Americans are likely limited enough to take it personal when confronted with a comment like Thomas' "high tech lynching " statement. Biden is the quintessential white liberal race man, which means he rarely has to think about his race and gender, which is actually a shame because he likely could learn a lot by doing so.
For example, it would be interesting to see Biden ask Palin on precisely what grounds she is distinguishing between him and McCain when talking about the old boy network? It would be interesting to see him engage her on precisely what she means by small town values, considering that he's from a small town himself? It would be interesting to hear him ask her precisely how she plans to reform Washington given the fact that the vice-president (a job whose duties last month she admitted to being unclear of) has very little power to reform Washington, and that it's the voters who would have to kick out the scoundrels? Moreover, if she wanted to reform Washington why not run for Ted Stevens's old senate seat since she'd have more power in changing the senate from within? Having been prodded by community organizers all his life, Biden might ask why Palin decided to poke fun at average Americans who are serving their communities? Wasn't she doing a similar thing when she was in the PTA? Finally, ask her whether she has been well-served by the leaders of her country over the last eight years?
The key for Biden in undoing Palinmania is understanding that as with Clarence Thomas, he has a broader responsibility, and that this election is not about her or him. Thomas won his nomination because at the end of the day people lost sight of the issues. One can argue that democrats ended up relinquishing too much ground on issues pertaining to Thomas's judicial philosophy--but this was not because of Anita Hill--it happened because in the rush to proclaim racism as an irrational concept of form of behavior, we have forgotten that it lays dormant in many of the founding principles of this nation. A similar logic applies to sexism; therefore acquitting, Biden, Obama or McCain of sexism does very little for the advancement of women's rights.
Clarence Thomas was elected to the supreme court not only because he was black, but because forty years after Marshall's pioneering work as a Civil Rights attorney, Civil Rights was (and is) still an ephemeral concept in this country. Seventeen years later, Biden will have a chance to undo some of the mistakes of the Thomas hearings by helping the citizens of this country realize that women's rights are not only real and necessary, but also not the responsibility of women, and therefore the Joe everybody knows has to find a way to channel the Joan that nobody knows.