Clarence Thomas’s New Old South
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas this week told a Palm Beach Atlantic University audience that Americans are more race-conscious today than in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1960s. Justice Thomas referred to being the first African-American in town to go to a previously all-white school, but “rarely did the issue of race come up.” Thomas made this assertion in the context of claiming that people are way too “sensitive” today.
The justice continued with a jab at liberals: the “absolute worst” he has ever been treated, he said, “was by northern liberal elites.”
No one who has read my writing on race will expect me to claim that northern liberal elites are prejudice-free paragons of racial equity. But worse than segregated Savannah in the 1960s? For starters, isn’t the fact that he was the very first African-American student at his school a pretty good indication of race-conscious exclusion?
New York Times columnist Charles Blow trashes Justice Thomas’s remarks beyond my poor power to add or detract. But I’m a blogger, so I’m going to add anyway.
I have no first-hand knowledge of Savannah in the 1960s, or of being African-American in any time or place. But my grandparents lived in Atlanta during the late 1950s and early 1960s. After they moved north, my grandmother told me stories about their time in Atlanta, one of which in particular burned its way into my seven- or eight-year old mind.
My grandmother told me about a time she was walking in Atlanta, and she came around a corner at the same time that an African-American man came around the corner from the other direction. They inadvertently bumped into each other and the man reflexively put his hands up to break the collision. One of his hands went to my grandmother’s shoulder.
He was instantly horrified at what he had done: he had touched a white woman, and not just a handshake, in a time and place that African-Americans did not dare look white people in the eye. My grandmother related to me in graphic detail how the man immediately began to apologize, profusely, wholly out of proportion to the event. As he apologized, he backed out into the street in extravagant deference.
To explain the man’s reaction, my grandmother had to explain to me that the man was in mortal fear, and that he had cause to be in mortal fear. Had my grandmother screamed, for instance, or had someone seen the bump, the man might have been accused, he might have been arrested, or a mob might have delivered its justice right there on the street.
So a grown man abased himself in the street, abjectly begging forgiveness, because bumping into a white woman might ruin his life, or even take it.
Of course the issue of race never came up, because people were so much less sensitive back then.