Book Review: The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin

Date01 February 2020
Published date01 February 2020
Subject MatterBook Reviews
/tmp/tmp-171Ak51XuBTzZw/input 882613PTXXXX10.1177/0090591719882613Political TheoryBook Reviews
Book Reviews
Political Theory
2020, Vol. 48(1) 109 –134
Book Reviews
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 320 pp.
Reviewed by: Brandon M. Terry, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
DOI: 10.1177/0090591719882613
Successive crises have dealt a considerable blow to intellectual parochialism,
in and out of the academy. Scholars and intellectuals are scrambling to come
to terms with the causes and consequences of the Great Recession, the migra-
tion crisis bequeathed by permanent war and religious terror, the cynical
manipulation of white resentment and identity by conservative parties
throughout the West, and the shattered dream that Barack Obama’s ascen-
dancy heralded a reconciliatory era of postimperial and postracial politics.
With many no longer confident that more ready-at-hand texts and traditions
are sufficient to grapple with these ills, there has been surprising interest in
African American political thought as a central part of the scaffolding by
which critique and understanding might regain their lost footing.
Campuses have been riven by protests aiming to bring “diversity and
inclusion” or, more immodestly, “decolonization” to the university and its
syllabi. Black thinkers are increasingly populating reading lists of canonical
political and social thought at elite universities like Oxford and Yale. Even
theoretical agendas in adjacent disciplines have been affected, as economists
and historians interrogate the aftermath of American slavery and place race at
the center of histories of capitalism.1 Mainstream political discourse, too, has
been besieged by concepts harvested from black intellectualism’s archives
(e.g., “intersectionality,” “white supremacy,” and the “politics of respectabil-
ity”), while the New York Times and New York Magazine solicit essays on
“racial capitalism” and the ethics of “fugitivity.”2
Much of the scholarship undergirding these developments has finally been
condensed, curated, and engaged in Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner’s forth-
coming volume African American Political Thought: A Collected History

Political Theory 48(1)
(Chicago). In over 1,200 pages and thirty contributors, the volume presents
an imposing gauntlet of black intellectuals and their competing traditions.
More familiar voices—Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther
King Jr.—are included, but so too are criminally underappreciated thinkers,
from the so-called “father of black nationalism,” Martin Delany; the feminist
theorist and poet Audre Lorde; the architect of legal desegregation, Thurgood
Marshall; and even Marshall’s controversial Court successor, Clarence
The entry on Justice Thomas is written by Corey Robin, a political theorist at
Brooklyn College, whose The Reactionary Mind: From Edmund Burke to
Sarah Palin
(Oxford, 2011) and dedicated social media presence has made
him a prominent public intellectual. Robin, in many ways, is exemplary of
the aforementioned shift concerning black political thought. His first book,
Fear: The History of a Political Idea (2004), is an original and often power-
ful meditation on the experience of fear and its importance for theorizing
domination, acquiescence, and resistance. Surprisingly absent, however, is
any sustained engagement with black thinkers who wrote with insight on fear
and its overcoming from the vantage of political practice, self-examination,
and philosophical reflection (e.g., King and Lorde, but also Angela Davis,
Frantz Fanon, and Howard Thurman). Fifteen years later, however, we find
Robin deeply engaged with scholarship on black political thought, and his
reflections on Thomas’s place in the tradition thankfully spilling over from
the original essay into an exciting new book: The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
(Henry Holt, 2019).
Robin’s book is crisply written, modeling all-too-rare virtues of compre-
hensiveness, curiosity, and charity without giving up its critical edge. Living
up to John Rawls’s maxim to interpret one’s interlocutors in “the best and
most interesting way,” and to try to “understand their problem and their solu-
tion from their point of view and not from ours,” Robin reveals Thomas as far
more interesting and unsettling than most have supposed.3
The current longest-serving justice, Thomas has more former clerks serv-
ing on the federal judiciary than anyone else. Broadly influential, Thomas is
nevertheless treated with intellectual contempt. If he is not caricatured as
parroting more competent conservatives, he is reflexively portrayed as a fig-
ure of black self-hatred.4 Emerge magazine, for example, proclaimed Thomas
“the lawn jockey of the far right” on its November 1996 cover, commission-
ing a cartoon of Thomas in full equestrian garb to dispense with all subtlety.

Book Reviews
Robin is rightly unsettled by this overlapping consensus between D.C.
pundits and ostensibly antiracist progressives. Coming in for special scorn is
the mockery of Thomas for not speaking during oral arguments, which not
only ignores court scholarship showing the minor influence of speech from
the bench but also simply ignores Thomas’s prolific opinion writing and
long, fiery dissents. When we read these opinions alongside decades of
Thomas’s speeches, press releases, interviews, and books, Robin argues that
we discover an idiosyncratic conservative intellectual in plain sight.
The key is that even within the age of so-called “colorblind” conservatism,
it is race that is “the foundational principle of Thomas’s philosophy and juris-
prudence” (14, emphasis added). “Thomas is not a conservative man who
happens to be black,” Robin argues, “but a black man whose conservatism is
overwhelmingly defined by and oriented toward the interests of black people,
as he understands them.” (4) This is no deconstructive or psychoanalytically
suspicious reading either, for Clarence Thomas, Robin suggests, is only an
enigma because, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we refuse to see him for
what he is or take seriously what he says and writes.5
Tracing Thomas’s intellectual development through the Jim Crow South
and his immersion in the black nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s, Robin
argues that Thomas’ understanding of black interests and his role in advanc-
ing them bears the indelible impact of this sojourn. The headline-grabbing
claim is that Thomas, even today, is a conservative black nationalist. The
stunning implication, if Robin is correct, is that if we look beyond militant
glamour, the most influential black nationalist in American history is a
Catholic, Yale-educated, Republican judge from Georgia, presently married
to a white Tea Party activist.
Growing out of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century movements for voluntary
emigration and forced colonization, black nationalists view African
Americans as a political people, or—in Martin Delany’s oft-quoted words—
“a nation within a nation,” whose shared destiny, duties, and interests are
incongruent with those of the broader American body politic. While many
black nationalists, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
aspired to establish independent nation-states and empires, their deeper com-
mitments to institutional autonomy, group solidarity, and the ethical priority
of their racial affiliations lived on past the eclipse of these possibilities in the
rhetoric of “self-determination” and “self-help.”
More thoroughgoing nationalists, like the early Amiri Baraka, Elijah
Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, or the Black Hebrew Israelites, argue for

Political Theory 48(1)
these commitments on the grounds that blacks are essentiall...

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