Americans today are too sensitive about race, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told a gathering of college students in Florida on Tuesday.
Speaking at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla., Thomas, the second black justice to serve on the court, lamented what he considers a society that is more “conscious” of racial differences than it was when he grew up in segregated Georgia in the days before — and during — the civil rights era.
“My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,” Thomas said during a chapel service hosted by the nondenominational Christian university. “Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.
“That’s a part of the deal,” he added.
Thomas spent his childhood in a place and time in which businesses and government services were legally segregated. In his 2007 memoir, "My Grandfather's Son," he described his experience growing up as an African-American Catholic in Georgia during the Jim Crow era. “I was a two-fer for the Klan,” he said.
Thomas moved north from Georgia and graduated from Yale Law School in 1974. He went on to a successful judicial career that took him all the way to the Supreme Court. Thomas’ views on constitutional issues usually put him on the conservative side of the court, where he has penned opinions intended to rein in affirmative-action laws and overhaul a section of the Civil Rights Act that requires states with histories of discrimination to seek approval from the federal government before altering voting policies.
Throughout his career, Thomas said, he has experienced more instances of discrimination and poor treatment in the North than the South.
“The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated,” Thomas said. “The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”
As one of six Catholics on the court, Thomas also addressed the role his faith plays in his work as a justice.
“I quite frankly don’t know how you do these hard jobs without some faith. I don’t know. Other people can come to you and explain it to you. I have no idea," he said. "I don’t know how an oath becomes meaningful unless you have faith. Because at the end you say, ‘So help me God.’ And a promise to God is different from a promise to anyone else."
Disclosure: Chris Moody is a graduate of Palm Beach Atlantic University.
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