This impulse is what has propelled him to the top of the judicial system, says scholar Shelby Steele, and it’s what makes Thomas “the freest black man in America.”
Here’s how Steele explains it: Being born into a minority group means being part of a group of nervous people separated from a majority group that views itself as heroic. Add to that Thomas’ memories of a childhood steeped in poverty, which he describes in his autobiography as “hunger without the prospect of eating and cold without the prospect of warmth.” The final piece of Thomas’ trajectory is his grandfather, who rescued him from poverty and raised him on a Spartan regimen of work. The secret of success, in his view, is an unrelenting application of individual will.
At Yale Law School, Thomas picked the hardest courses to prove he was competitive. He embraced every step forward as a victory. His famous fury was unleashed with the discovery that Yale practiced affirmative action, a policy he believed stigmatized him and robbed him of his legitimate achievements. That’s also how he framed later charges that he harassed an employee, Anita Hill—as payback for his fierce individualism.
Thomas’ ethos is to overcome dependency with self-reliance, which is the very essence of freedom and equality for him.
Lesson: Everyone faces obstacles of one kind or another. Instead of presuming that they will encounter oppression, Steele says, leaders like Clarence Thomas presume freedom and opportunity.
—Adapted from “The Freest Black Man in America,” Shelby Steele, National Review.