Robin (The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump), a political science teacher at CUNY, offers a radical reinterpretation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence, contending that Thomas is first and foremost a kind of conservative black nationalist. He argues that Thomas’s opinions are driven not by a coherent theory of constitutional law but by personal experience, particularly his upbringing: Robin recounts that Thomas, deserted by his father, was raised by his successful and idealized capitalist grandfather, who felt making money was the salvation of black America and was therefore pro-deregulation. Robin deconstructs Thomas’s decisions on high-profile issues including racial discrimination, voting rights, the Second Amendment, and campaign finance, concluding that, for example, Thomas considers affirmative action a tool of elite Americans to protect their privilege and stigmatize African-Americans, and that it is imperative that the Second Amendment extend to personal gun ownership because historically arms were necessary for the protection of black citizens in a racist and hostile society. Robin credibly mines Thomas’s speeches, opinions, and writings in support of his thesis, but the weight he gives to Thomas’s formative experiences feels overstated, and his conclusions are simultaneously too speculative and too pat to sway skeptics. Nonetheless, this novel view of the often-inscrutable Thomas will give court watchers food for thought. (Sept.)
Makes a strong case for its provocative thesis... Rigorous yet readable, frequently startling yet eminently persuasive... One of the marvels of Robin’s razor-sharp book is how carefully he marshals his evidence.... It isn’t every day that reading about ideas can be both so gratifying and unsettling, and Robin’s incisive and superbly argued book has made me think again.”
The New York Times
“An important and well-argued book... Robin has produced a thoughtful and careful explication of Thomas’s core ideas, showing how they emerge partly from his biography and setting out their disturbing implications. This is as good a synthesis of Thomas’s intellectual world as we are likely to get.”
The Washington Post
“The remarkable achievement of Robin’s thoroughly researched, cogently argued work is that it makes a compelling case for what is, initially, a startling argument.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Robin sees a powerful continuity between Thomas’s black nationalism and his conservatism, extrapolating from his words a coherent worldview that helps explain his approach to a slew of issues, from voting rights to gun ownership, from the Commerce Clause to gender relations.... The Enigma of Clarence Thomas is the first book to fully tease out these strands of his thinking. The results are fascinating.”
“When Clarence Thomas took his seat on the Supreme Court, no one could have predicted that he would become both the silent justice and the most influential justice. Corey Robin’s elegant and insightful analysis shows how Thomas’s blend of black nationalism and conservatism helped him fashion a jurisprudence that will shape American life for years to come. This is the book Court watcherswhich we all should behave waited for.”
Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello
“Robin is the rare left-wing observer who takes Thomas’s political and legal mind seriously.... Thoroughly researched and engagingly written... this book is a valuable and overdue engagement with the nexus between Thomas’s early life, his black nationalism, and his political views.”
“Clarence Thomas is by far the Supreme Court’s most interesting and perplexing justice, criticized by many and understood by few. Working through Thomas’s writings, Corey Robin tells a remarkable story about a remarkable figurea man of complex views whose austere philosophy has been hiding in plain sight. Robin shows us Thomas’s black nationalism, his deep pessimism about race relations, his fervent embrace of capitalism, and his stern demand for a severe and uncompromising system of criminal justice. What emerges is a portrait that is as fascinating as it is disturbing. You may think you know who Clarence Thomas is, but you don’t know the half of it. This book is a revelation.”
Jack M. Balkin, author of Living Originalism
“In his provocative new book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, Corey Robin... is deconstructing a sphinx, and his point carries the uncomfortable ring of truth.”
“It requires the ferocious curiosity and intellectual courage of a Corey Robin to brave one of the most vexing mysteries faced by Supreme Court watchers: How to reconcile Clarence Thomas’s radical conservatism with his unforgiving use of race as jurisprudential lodestar? For conservatives blinkered to Thomas’s essentialism on race, and for liberals who refuse to reckon with his lived experience of black marginalization and stigma, this book will be equally discomfiting and eye-opening.”
Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor, Slate
“Lucid and brilliant... A magnificent and serious study... Read The Enigma of Clarence Thomas as well as everything else Robin has written. No political thinker in our time has been more devoted to understanding political thinking (as opposed to sociologizing or moralizing politics).”
“Only a political diagnostician as keenly incisive as Corey Robin could render such a complex and fascinating portrait of Clarence Thomas. This meticulous analysis of the touchstones and turning points in Thomas’s life finds ideological consistency in the seemingly quirky patchwork of his thought: an odd amalgam of ultra-libertarian revanchism, patriarchal fundamentalism, black nationalism, and state-backed authoritarianism. Robin delivers a riveting guide to the multiple paradoxes that underlie Thomas’s unusually self-protective persona, and masterfully shows their resonance in the juridical rulings that govern us all.”
Patricia J. Williams, author of The Alchemy of Race and Rights
For Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, racism in America can never be expunged.
Analyzing speeches, court opinions, and Thomas' writings, Robin (Political Science/Brooklyn Coll. and CUNY Graduate Center; The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, 2017, etc.) argues persuasively that Thomas' right-wing conservatism and black nationalism make him "the most extreme justice on the Supreme Court." Thomas, writes the author, believes "that racism is permanent, the state is ineffective, and politics is feeble." Noting that he rejects "virtually all of Thomas's views," Robin warns against dismissing them, and he presents them in detail along with critiques from other justices and analysts. Central to Thomas' beliefs is the valorization of the black male provider and protector, "a figure of authority whose word is law for the women and children under his care." Black men, "stolid, moral, responsible, authoritative, upstanding," are essential to the black community. For Thomas, white racism and liberal politics combine to undermine black interests. Blacks, therefore, "should cease to look to electoral politics as a means of bettering their situation; any involvement in electoral politics will only confirm white power and reinforce black powerlessness." Efforts such as affirmative action, for example, reinforce black powerlessness by failing to treat blacks and whites as equals, defining blacks as "inferior and deficient." When Thomas considers the incarceration rate for blacks and liberals' cry for judicial and prison reform, he counters that "the racist dimensions of the carceral state" actually benefit African Americans: Harsh policing protects black neighborhoods from crime, and stringent punishment fosters law-abiding behavior. Adversity—even slavery and society under Jim Crow—"helps the black community develop its inner virtue and resolve." Acknowledging that we are all trapped "in the same historical moment" as Thomas, Robin asks readers to examine the premises underlying their own social and political views. Thomas' "beliefs are disturbing, even ugly," Robin acknowledges; "his style is brutal. I want to make us sit with that discomfort rather than swat it away."
A penetrating profile of the Supreme Court's longest-serving justice.