Saturday, April 21, 2007

Yoshino reviews Merida & Fletcher, Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas

Kenji Yoshino, Yale, reviews SUPREME DISCOMFORT: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas (Doubleday) by Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher in this Sunday's Washington Post. Yoshino writes, in part:
Justice Clarence Thomas is the Supreme Court's most reclusive member, which is saying something. Deeply distrustful of the media, the justice also almost never speaks from the bench. As a powerful official who remains opaque to the public, he is a prime candidate for a careful, fair-minded biography. In delivering it, Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher have done some quiet justice of their own.
Supreme Discomfort shows that two competing, racially charged narratives govern how Thomas -- like many black conservatives -- is perceived and treated. The first storyline is that of the Uncle Tom: the race-traitor who sides with whites for personal advantage....If liberals often cast Thomas as a quisling, conservatives tend to cast him as someone who has achieved the American Dream by pulling himself up by his bootstraps....
Lost between these two competing stories is the tale of an individual, and that is the one brought to life by Merida and Fletcher, journalists at The Washington Post. Their biography deftly puts paid to both conventional narratives; after all, we do not expect Uncle Toms to have engaged in radical black student activism, nor do we expect Horatio Alger heroes to believe America is irredeemably racist. But that is too faint praise for Supreme Discomfort. By the end of the book, we see the injustice that stock narratives have done to a person who can charm those predisposed against him and win the lifetime loyalty of those whose minds are less made up. We're introduced to the many Thomases we have never seen: the RV-driving Thomas, the Ayn Rand-loving Thomas, the Catholic Thomas and others.
The book's main flaw is its failure to give us more of one particular Thomas: Justice Thomas. For a biography of a jurist, Supreme Discomfort is surprisingly short on Thomas's legal decisions and philosophy.

For the rest, click here.
Update:
David Garrow has a different take on the book in today's Los Angeles Times.

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