The New Intolerance - Law Day Address
delivered May 1993, Walter F. George School of Law, Mercer University, Macon, GA
Plug-in required for flash audio
[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]
Thank you all so much. Thank you, Judge Bell for your kind words, and I also thank you for all the kind things you've done for me in my life, especially over the last three or four years. I -- This is a real pleasure to be here. I didn't thing so many people would be interested in what I had to say. There isn't that great a demand for my opinions.
As you all can see, I kinda had to hobble up here. I had decided to play basketball with my law clerks and snapped my Achilles tendon. If that wasn't bad enough, I also tore it. But I was looking around for some precedent as to what happens to people after they've injured their Achilles tendon, and in looking I found that some very good things happen. Dominique Wilkins is the second leading scorer in the NBA. And he also makes several million dollars a year, so I may be changing jobs after this heals.
It's wonderful to be in Macon, George. I grew up on the music of James Brown. I think he was born here and I'm sure he always hails from Augusta. And, of course, there's Little Richard who did a little bit of everything. He's quite an entertainer. I had a young mother. That's why I listened to all these things. I was a little kid. And, of course, when I went off to school Otis Redding was hot -- "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay." So, I am very pleased to be in the hometown of -- Lena Horne, of course, is from here and there are all sorts of other wonderful people. I just happen to remember those, and people I think so well of.
It is good to be back in Georgia. It's good to be back in my home state. I look forward to this day -- have looked forward for a long time. I thank, again, Judge Bell and my dear friend Larry Thompson for their role in my presence here today. Larry and I met -- as Judge Bell alluded to -- we met some 19 years ago in a Bar Review course, while preparing for the Missouri Bar. That was in the summer of 1974. And we went on to work together in the Law Department of Monsanto Company in St. Louis. I'd also like to thank Dean Shelton for inviting me and all the patience he had in working out with his wonderful staff the details here today -- and the alumni association.
Since going on the Court, I have not had the opportunity to give many speeches, in part because during the Court term there never seems to be enough time. However, during my years in the Executive Branch, I spoke quite a bit. In fact, during my preparations for my last confirmation, one friend, after learning that I had given more than 100 copies of my printed speeches to the Senate Judiciary Committee for their review, asked why I had given so many speeches. I quickly assured him that the reason I didn't give more speeches during my tenure was that I ran out of time and more importantly ran out of people willing to listen.
Seriously, after my brief tenure as a federal judge -- or seriously, my brief tenure as a federal judge, with the exception of a brief interruption for my confirmation as Associate Justice -- has been a rewarding and fulfilling experience. Throughout my year and a half on the Court, I have found the working relationship with my fellow Justices and their clerks to be courteous and kind. For my first day on the bench I found that, regardless of my junior status, I was treated with the same respect as Justices who had been there for 20 and 30 years -- well, maybe with the possible exception of the Chief Justice, to whom everyone is especially nice. And that's because he handles all the Opinion assignments.
But kidding aside, the cases we decide are usually very difficult and, of course, there are times when the disagreement among the Justices is intense. But out of respect for ourselves, and for the positions we hold, we take care to remain civil and respectful to each other. That is not to say that in some Opinions we aren't tough on the others' legal views and interpretations. This does not carry, however, into the Court dining room or into the hallways in the form of disrespect or incivility. So I've settled into Court life, and despite what you may have heard, I am very happy with the challenges of the work and the friendship of my colleagues.
Mercer University and Mercer Law School played important roles in my dreams to educate myself and ultimately to become a lawyer. I can still remember going to the Savannah Public Library to read catalogues about schools, schools that I might have an opportunity to attend. For a variety of reasons, I kept coming back to Mercer. This institution helped me to keep a dream alive, and to keep a dream alive in a young black kid who spent hours wondering about the possibilities that lay ahead. But never in my wildest dream would I have thought that I would be an invited speaker here, and, as a Supreme Court Justice no less.
Yet, there's another reason why this day is a special one, beyond of course your wonderful hospitality and the importance of this Law Day Celebration. This occasion gives me the chance to say, "Thank you." I will never be able to express how much the support of my fellow Georgians meant to my family and me during those bleak days in the summer and fall of 1991.
Since I have been somewhat of a Washington area nomad before my four previous nominations, I have been identified as Clarence Thomas of Missouri, of Maryland, or of Virginia; but for my Supreme Court nomination, I asked President Bush to nominate me as Clarence Thomas of Georgia. When he mentioned my Georgia roots as he announced my nomination in Kennebunkport, I felt immensely proud. To me, it symbolized my coming home. And as that inglorious summer wore on, home came to me in the form of letters, cards, calls, prayers, flowers. And today, as I stand here, I know that it was all worth it.
It seems so long ago that I left for the first time. That was in the fall of 1967. I had just graduated from high school seminary and was on way to college seminary in Missouri. I took the "Nancy Hank"¹ -- some of you may remember the "Nancy Hank" -- from Savannah to Atlanta; then flew from Atlanta to Kansas City, Missouri, my first airplane flight; then on to Conception Junction, Missouri. (Sure many of you've been there.) Those were turbulent times in 1967, in Georgia, across the country, and, of course, across the South. Intolerance and bigotry still defined the relationship between the races.
Of course, we all have our stories to tell about how we were treated or mistreated in those difficult days. And from time to time I've speculated that racial attitudes had still not changed sufficiently for me to return to my home state to practice law after law school. I would certainly have liked to come back, if for no other reason, after spending six years in law school -- or in six years in college and law school in the Northeast, I was dying for some decent southern cooking on a regular basis. Seriously, I allude to this possibility of discrimination, not as an indictment of anyone or to place blame, but only to note that racial prejudice permeated all of our lives in one way or another. Only to that extent was it nondiscriminatory.
Growing up in the South, we were never far removed from prevailing prejudices. We lived with them on a daily basis: as children, when we couldn't swim in most public pools; as adults, when we were looking for work or trying to rent an apartment. The prejudice and racial hatred that drove our national consciousness has complex and, to a certain degree, undiscoverable roots. But one of its consequences was the lack of civility toward members of my race.
I focus on this undignified, uncivil treatment so many of us suffered because of this hardship -- because in this hardship, there is wisdom. For if we have not learned of the tragedy and damage caused by mistreating others, then so much of that terrible struggle was in vain. And although, we would be kidding ourselves if we didn't admit that racial stereotypes still linger in 1993, I believe we all have benefited from the struggles of those years.
Today, I'm here to share my thoughts about a principle that seems to be falling out of fashion these days: civility. For if we have learned anything from the hardship, it is that no good can ever come of treating others badly, whether on account of their race, their religion, or gender.
As the customs, practices, and laws governing the relations between the race[s] changed, we feared the backlash of incivility, if not outright lawlessness that would follow. We saw how so many resisted change for the good. This was so in no small part because there's comfort in the extant stereotypes and prejudices. It is far easier to hold fast to generalizations, rather than to take the time and make the effort to judge people on an individual basis.
Thus, for years following the civil rights gains of the 60's, we still found ourselves wondering if the country truly was ready to reject what the Supreme Court had told us in the Dred Scott decision -- that the negro had no rights that needed to be respected.
But even as the harsh realities of inter-racial relations settled over us, for many, including myself, the intra-racial fear -- sphere in which we lived stood in stark contrast. Racial stereotypes of blacks and whites were dismissed out of hands as our families, teachers, and neighbors told us to treat others not as we are treated by them, but rather as we wish ourselves to be treated by them.
As the outside world so often operated beyond rules of civility and dignity, as it held fast to prejudice, we did our best to retain our sense of fairness in order that unfairness in practice did not undermine fairness in principle. In our house, no one was allowed to use racial slurs to describe whites, even while it was uncommon for blacks -- or was not uncommon for blacks to be degraded by racial epithets. Everyone was to be treated with respect regardless of how disrespectfully we were treated.
The notion of civility does not submit easily to definition. To pardon a phrase, it's sort of a "we know it when we see it" phenomenon. Most of us know when we are treated rudely, disrespectfully, or improperly. We also know in our hearts when we treat others uncivilly. Perhaps with all the problems in the world today, this might not seem very important. In this country, crime and poverty still plague us. In Bosnia, we see the attempted extermination of an entire people. Yet, notions of fair play, civility, and respect for the inherent worth of another person's ideas, are all values that have been vital to the continued success of this country, and essential tools which our leaders must bring to any domestic or international crisis.
If we seem to have gotten off course, we might do well to start at ground zero -- right at the beginning. On an individual basis, rules of personal conduct allow us to confront difficulties constructively, and they provide guardrails down what is an often dangerous and precarious road of life. These guardrails, of course, kept us well within the bounds of the criminal laws. My grandfather made it very clear that a man did not keep his good name merely by not breaking the criminal law. Our family laws required much more of us and did not permit us to wander into that gray zone of impropriety not governed by the criminal law. So, only -- not only were we not to do bad things or engage in mischief, we were not to associate with those who did, because as my grandparents would say, "They were up to no good." Somehow, with the benefit of little formal education, my grandparents recognized the inexorable downward spiral of conduct outside the guardrails: If you lie, you will cheat; if you cheat, you will steal; if you steal, you will kill.
Along these lines, I still remember the -- this now amusing memory -- or I have this now amusing memory of crossing East Henry Street at the corner of East Broad. Since Henry Street was one-way and particularly busy, we had been told time and time again not to cross against the light. But as grammar school kids, we did anyway. Well, on one of those occasions a neighbor, Miss Gertrude, passed by on a bus. Her siren-like voice pierced the air, rising above the din of traffic, and she yelled, "I'm gonna tell Teenie." Teenie [sp?] is my grandmother. This meant major trouble. True to her word, as usual, she told. Before he delivered the punishment, our grandfather gave us the usual refrain, "This hurts me worse than it hurts you." Even now, that is hard for me to believe.
Yes, we were, as they said, to be "mannerable" -- period. We did not dare walk the street -- or walk down the street without saying "Good morning" to Miss Gladys, Miss Moriah, Miss Beck, and especially Miss Gertrude -- the latter for obvious reasons. We would never think of addressing an adult only by his or her first name, or as the adults would say, without a "handle" on that name. We would never refuse to make a trip to the store for an adult who asked. We knew that we were not to litter or damage the property of another, regardless of how much the property was worth.
And I remember the "do's" maybe even better than I remember the "don't's" -- church on Sunday; tend to property on Saturday; wash the car; cut the grass; polish your shoes. And all of us, especially my brother and I, were expected to work. My grandfather imposed a rule that seemed pretty harsh: If you don't work, you don't eat. And he meant it. Needless to say, I liked eating, so I endured working. My grandfather also had a corollary principle or rule that revealed his soft, kind side: When you produce more than you need, you give to those who could not do for themselves -- but not to those who could. To them, you give a chance to work. It wasn't until I got older that I realized why my chores never seemed to end, because my grandfather provided me with a steady stream of work for work's sake, or better put, work to consume idleness, which he called, "The devil's workshop."
And let me tell you, even if we felt as kids that the unending work was unfair, there were no negotiations about the work or the rules. By decree my -- By -- By decree of my grandfather, my teachers and my grandmother were always right. And by decree, though not always right, he was never wrong. I still don't know what the difference is between these two rules. Regardless of how we were treated by others, we were expected to rise above our circumstances rather than becoming consumed by them or by the natural reactions that stirred within us all.
The families poorest in means were often the richest in manners. That was comforting. Resentment and other destructive passions were not free to breed in such an atmosphere. There were guardrails. While as a kid I sometimes saw this regimen as nothing more than a plot to keep me away from my training to be a pro football player, or a basketball star, as an adult I see how this nurturing of good manners and good work habits gave me the independence, discipline, and self-respect that I needed for college and my life as an adult.
Certainly, much has changed since those days. Most significantly, no longer is there government sponsored segregation. While discrimination, no doubt, still hovers about, its face does not resemble that of my youth. The mere fact that I'm here today, a Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, is some indication of just how far we've come and just how much things have changed.
But sadly, although much has changed, much has not. Many of the old problems have resurfaced elsewhere in our society under rubrics -- under different rubrics and with different justifications. When I left Georgia over 25 years ago, the familiar sources of unkind treatment and incivility were just bigots. Today, ironically, a new brand of stereotypes and ad hominem assaults are surfacing across the nation's college campuses, in the national media, in Hollywood, and among the involuntarily ordained cultural elite. And who are the targets? Those who dare to question current social and cultural gimmicks; those who insist that we embrace the values that have worked and reject those that have failed us; those who dare to disagree with the latest ideological fad.
Signs of this began creeping up during my college years. Back then, wearing an Afro hairstyle was in vogue. After -- Often I heard it said you weren't really black if you didn't wear an Afro. Though I occasionally wore my hair in this style, I certainly didn't define myself through my barber. This conformist mindset struck me as particularly incredible, since we had barely freed ourselves from being judged by others on the basis of our skin. My reaction to this was to leave my hair uncombed for most of my college career. I'm still not sure if anyone knew the difference.
Perhaps this seems funny now, but it did portend greater and more serious stereotypical dictates. Later in life I would be told that I did not "think black," by white critics no less. During the 1980's I watched with shock and dismay how friends of mine were treated for merely disagreeing with what my friend Tom Sowell referred to as "The New Orthodoxy." As a black person, straying from the tenets of this orthodoxy meant that you were a traitor to your race. You were not a "real black" and you would be forced to pay for your ideological trespass, often through systematic character assassination -- the modern day version of the old public floggings. Just a few of the victims were Clarence Pendleton, Walter Williams, or Jay Parker, all friends of mine -- the late Clarence Pendleton.
Undoubtedly, there are untold numbers of others who have been made to pay the same high price for their ideas. Instead of seeing signs on public doors saying, "No Coloreds Allowed," the signs I saw were "No Nonconforming Ideas Allowed!" This tack of damning the dissenter by skewering his character, rather than by substantively criticizing his views, occurs while unyielding praise is heaped on those who write, speak, and think the language of the New Orthodoxy. Their assertions go unchallenged, untested, and then are passed on to our children as truisms. The ultimate effect is that many cower in fear of speaking out publicly on certain issues or policies due to the unrelenting, personal attacks that are likely to follow.
This is what I refer to as "The New Intolerance." It gives me a feeling of deja vu, or as Yogi Berra would add, "deja vu all over again." In many ways, it is just the same old thing we've seen before, just as invidious and perhaps more pervasive than the incivility black Americans suffered throughout much of this century. Its perniciousness lies in its masquerade. Cleverly the purveyors of the New Intolerance claim legitimacy in the name of fostering tolerance, sensitivity, or a sense of community. Yet, in my experience these popular buzz words are merely trotted out as justifications in an attempt to intimidate and silence those who dare to question popular political, social, or economic fads.
To defend this turf from criticisms, competing ideas and points of views are ignored and the jugular of the dissenter vengefully slashed at. Does a man instantaneously become insensitive or a dupe or an Uncle Tom because he happens to disagree with the policy of Affirmative Action? Is it any more justified to hurl invectives at him for what he believes than to call him names for the color of his skin? In both instances, a man's reputation is disparaged and his name sullied. In neither instance is he treated as an individual. Is it really any more laudable to make a man afraid to express his views than it is to make him ashamed for the color of his skin? Does it make sense to criticize someone who says, "Blacks look alike," then praise someone who says that "All blacks should think alike?"
One of the things I looked forward to when I first went to Washington was the opportunity to debate and discuss difficult issues with those who had competing ideas. The closest I came to this environment were my dealings with my personal staff during my days as chairman of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. They challenged me. We debated. We disagreed. We saw issues in ways we hadn't seen them before. The unfettered exchanges were liberating.
When I arrived in Washington, I just assumed that although the legitimacy of a person['s] ideas were fair game, his character was not. So you can imagine how surprised and disappointed I was to find that the reverse was true. Many issues were off limits, but ad hominem attacks were not. Indeed, they were in vogue. Those who had the temerity to broach these subjects and -- heaven forbid -- actually express a view contrary to The New Orthodoxy were summarily dismissed as "sellouts" or "insensitive."
This was especially true for those of us who happened to be black. As soon as I began working in the Reagan Administration, I was quickly and cavalierly described as an "ultraconservative." Why? Because I dared to follow the final counsel of my -- that my grandfather gave some 10 years ago. I stood up for what I believed in and for what he taught me. Later I would be called worse things. Few flinched at the hypocrisy of it all. And for those who had the misfortune of not being black, well they were racist, bigots, fascists, or Neanderthals. I am still waiting to here the cries of insensitivity about the casual use of these epithets. The silence is deafening.
It is not surprising that this New Intolerance has a devastating, chilling effect. I cannot tell you how many people have approached me in airports, restaurants, or on the streets -- only to whisper how much they agreed with me, and about what I think, and about the need to get back to basics in this country. While it's heartening to know that there's an undercurrent of common sense running through our country today, it is saddening to know that so many are fearful of challenging the advocates of this New Intolerance.
Of course, the reluctance is understandable. Being their victim is no fun. It is no more enjoyable than it was 25 or 30 years ago -- when we feared for our safety if caught walking in the wrong neighborhood after dark. It is imperative that we recognize that where blacks were once intimidated from crossing racial boundaries, we all now fear crossing ideological boundaries, and that such intolerance and incivility that fuel both types of intimidation are reprehensible.
Just as so many worked tirelessly to end the undignified, uncivil treatment of blacks in this country, it is incumbent upon all of you to do your part in order that The New Intolerance does not succeed in stifling the free exchange of ideas. Women have the right not to agree with the feminist agenda, and not to be personally attacked for it. Blacks have the right to criticize welfare policies, and not to be lashed by the cultural elite for doing so. If you succumb to self-censorship, then the gains that we have made will be hollow. If we lose this battle, we risk finding ourselves once again judged not for our individual ideas or conduct, but only for the color of our skin or some other immutable characteristic.
Demand to be treated by your classmates and colleagues with respect and dignity, regardless of how strong the disagreement among you. Settle for nothing less than fair, civil discussions, where labels and stereotypes of any sort are rejected as harmful and counterproductive. Remind those who claim that your viewpoint is divisive or insensitive that [audio missing approx. 2 seconds] ² by nature divisive and that such divisiveness is to be harnessed by civility, not censorship. And tell them that what should really should be off limits are personal attacks on those who happen to disagree.
So this is a time for regrouping and rejuvenation. As I look out in the audience today, I see hope. When I was a brash and often angry young man -- and I was angry -- I would confide in my grandmother about my frustration and my dejection. She passed away 10 years ago today, but I can still see her looking at me with those strong, kind, sensitive eyes. She would give me her usual sage, warm advice: "Son, do your best. Be good. Be honest. And say your prayers." I would respond, "Yes, ma'am."
Perhaps we all should say, "Yes, ma'am" to her wise counsel and get on with the business of acting like we deserve to live in a free society.
Thank you all.
¹The Nancy Hanks was a rail (train) service between Savannah and Atlanta.
²Best estimate for content of missing audio is: "....viewpoints are by..."
Research Note: Audio provided by Joseph Slife, Emmanuel College Communication Dept. (Franklin Springs, Ga.)
Copyright Status: This text = Property of AmericanRhetoric.com. Audio = Uncertain. Image = Public domain.