In this excerpt from the just-published “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” by Michael Pack and Mark Paoletta, the Supreme Court justice reflects on changes in his hometown, Savannah, Ga. The book is based on more than 30 hours of interviews Pack conducted with Thomas and his wife Ginni for the film of the same name; 95% of the book’s material is new, including this excerpt.
Michael Pack: You have talked a little today about how life in the black community has not been improved by many well-intentioned social programs. Do you think, in some sense, it is worse than when you grew up?
Clarence Thomas: It’s a disaster. When I grew up, you had family, you didn’t have drugs, you didn’t have gang-banging. You could walk down the street.
There was a change in our society. I think that these programs certainly had an impact. Just go back to Savannah and take a look around you. Our worst fears were realized. We didn’t want to be right; we wanted to be wrong. It wasn’t about winning an argument. No, we wanted to lose the argument. We did not want the damage to occur; that’s why we were involved. I don’t particularly like public life; I never wanted to be in public life. I’d like to go to football games. I’d like not to make decisions about other people’s lives, but what drags you into it is when you see these principles being undermined, which leads to such destruction. The policies destroy people, and, ultimately, I think, we’re going to destroy the very thing that allows us to have liberty and to have a free society.
MP: So the heirs to those movements, like Black Lives Matter, focus on other things: mass incarceration, police brutality. What do you think of the current movements for racial justice?
CT: I don’t really follow the movements du jour. I don’t quite understand them. It’s fascinating to me that the radical groups in the sixties, that we all were aware of and fond of back then, like the Black Panthers — that’s kind of mainstream now. But we knew they were more marginal back then. I don’t know what to say about this. But if you look at some of the things that still are problematic, like bad education, unsafe neighborhoods, drugs, alcohol, breakdown in families, it seems like these are things that we warned about back then. We were told, basically, take a long walk on the short pier. And I understand that. I understand people not wanting to hear an opposing view. But at the same time, we’re not taking ownership of these policies’ having a significant role in the damage that’s been done.
MP: You’ve made many trips back to both Pin Point and Savannah. When you return, do you reflect on your life? Do you reflect on how it is now?
CT: I don’t reflect a lot about these sorts of things. A lot of this is depressing, and it didn’t have to happen. The Savannah that I return to is not the Savannah I grew up in. There are good parts, you’re free to move about. You don’t have the segregation, but you’ve got pathologies that we didn’t have before. You’ve got the crime we didn’t have before. You’ve got the disintegration of families that you didn’t have before, disorder you didn’t have before. And they were things that were avoidable. You didn’t have to do that to poor people, and it’s just heartbreaking. Something has changed, so it’s kind of hard to go back.
My grandfather would always talk about: How do you help people without turning them into wards of the state, turning them into people who don’t help themselves? He would have this line, “You help people help themselves.” And there was a difference between helping or helping to help themselves. Now we could do it individually because we did it all the time. It was not only our Christian obligation; it was the way we lived. That’s the way our community lived. You have fish and somebody else has beans, they bring you beans, you give them fish, or vice versa. But what happens with people who can’t help themselves? And my grandfather’s line was, “There are people who won’t help themselves and the people who can’t help themselves.” And he wanted to help people who couldn’t help themselves versus those who wouldn’t. And how do you make that distinction? Well, you live there. It’s a part of your community; it’s family, it’s your neighbor. You know that this person refuses to work, versus that person who’s disabled or that person had just had another kid and can’t go to work right now. But you don’t know that from a distance.
When people have these sort of macro policies and they have unintended consequences, they don’t fess up to it. When you tear down a neighborhood in order to replace the housing, you have changed the neighborhood. That little church that used to be there that people went to on Sundays, that little community house or whatever, is suddenly gone.
MP: Why do you think these activists promote these policies? Don’t they have good intentions?
CT: We were talking before about people will push a policy that makes them feel good. “Oh, I feel good about myself because I put you all in public housing.” When my grandfather saw all these high-rises for public housing, he thought it was awful. I remember when we visited a relative in New York who lived in one, and he said, “Boy, this don’t make no damn sense: pilin’ po’ people on top of po’ people.” And it turned out he was right. They tore down Cabrini Green [a Chicago housing project] and many of these notorious high-rise public-housing projects. They made a prophet out of him because he thought it would just create more problems. And yet the people who pushed it never say, “Oh, we made a mistake.” And they never take account of the fact the damage they did to the people with their grand experiment, the gangs they created, the drug dealing they accommodated, the destruction of the family that was exacerbated. All this was not necessarily caused but at least influenced in the wrong direction by the artificiality of the neighborhoods they created.
The experts don’t live in the neighborhood. They don’t know what effect it had when you tore down that little shoe store because you say it was in a substandard building. It’s the same thing. When we had school integration, the unintended consequences is the effect it had on the black teachers and also the neighborhood schools. You walked to school, your parents went to that school, and what happens when you break those bonds?
MP: Good point. The unintended consequences are significant.
CT: My grandfather said something one day when we’re riding around on the oil truck, and they’re beginning to tear down the old substandard housing and supposedly putting up new things. Well, they never got around to putting up that part. So when they started tearing down some of the dilapidated houses in our neighborhood, he said “Boy, they’re tearing down neighborhoods and building buildings.” That phrase has just stuck in my mind. There’s a difference between a neighborhood and a building. And it may be a subtle difference, particularly when you’re young, that you miss. But as life goes on, you see that a building and a neighborhood are two entirely different things. You can have really nice buildings and a horrible neighborhood, and you can have awful buildings and a wonderful neighborhood. And that was his point about our neighborhood. Our neighborhood was fine. But geniuses came in — the experts — and started tearing down buildings and tearing up the neighborhood.