Clarence Thomas and his Reinvention of Anthropology

Mon, 23 Oct 1995 09:40:36 EDT

(Long but Interesting ..LDB)

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently re-invented the
role anthropology, sociology, and social psychology played in the
1954 Brown v. Board of Education in his concurring decision to
Missouri v. Jenkins last June. In so doing, he bolstered
conservative ideas about race and culture as well as formulated a
powerful revision of the once-sacrosanct ideal of racial equality
embedded in Brown. It is incumbent upon anthropologists to be aware
of how the history of our discipline is being selectively
appropriated in an effort to articulate conservative political
agendas and erode the strides toward racial equality made during the
Civil Rights Movement.

In June of 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote three decisions that
crippled federal legislation to equalize opportunity for people of
color in public education, congressional elections, and federal
contract procurement. While narrow majorities prevailed in each case
(5-4), the decisions came on the heels of the Republican take-over
of the House and Senate, the House-Republican's "Contract with
America," a national debate over the merits of Affirmative Action,
and the meteoric sales of the Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class
Structure in American Society.

In Missouri v. Jenkins, the Court ruled that a Missouri federal
district court improperly ordered the state to pay for a program to
desegregate Kansas City's public schools. Initially, the district
court found that Kansas City's school board failed to successfully
desegregate the school system, and it ruled that both the state and
the school district "defaulted in their obligation to uphold the
Constitution." Because of White and Black suburbanization, the
district court was compelled to imposed an interdistrict
desegregation plan, essentially creating a magnate school district
in an effort to reverse so-called "white flight." The Supreme Court
ruled last June (18 years after the litigation was initiated and 41
years after Brown) that the district court had overstepped its
remedial authority because of the "interdistrict" nature of the

In a concurring decision, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
skillfully reinvented the history of anthropology to buttress his
opinion. Thomas framed his seemingly persuasive opinion by stating
"It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to
assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior. .
. The mere fact that a school is black does not mean that it is the
product of a constitutional violation." He explained that "this
approach not only relies upon questionable social science research
rather than constitutional principal, but it also rests on an
assumption of black inferiority." This is where Thomas was wrong.

The "questionable" social science Thomas referred to was a synthesis
of Boas' ideas about the lack of racial inferiority and Howard
sociologist E. Franklin Frazier's ideas of Negro's cultural
pathology. These ideas form a body of scholarship articulated by a
group of scholars at Howard University during the mid 1930s. These
scholars, known as the Howard circle, included Ralph Bunch, Rayford
Logan, Abram L. Harris, and E. Franklin Frazier, and they held the
belief that cultural assimilation was the most effective way to
obtain racial equality.

Essentially, members of the Howard circle unraveled Boas'
tightly-knit discourse that no culture nor race was superior nor
inferior to any another. While they used Boasian ideas about the
equality of the races, they jettisoned Boasian notions about
cultural relativity. For the cultural side of the equation, they
substituted the idea that rural Black folk culture was borne from a
condition of slavery and was basically a pathological version of the
larger "American" culture. Subsequently, the Howard circle scholars
shaped the theory and research of Gunnar Myrdal's An American
Dilemma, a herculean study of U.S. race relations published in 1944.

During the rising tide of the cold-war, members of the NAACP Legal
Defense Fund (LDF) such as Thurgood Marshal, Robert Carter, and
Kenneth B. Clark were forced to develop a strategy to convinced the
Justice Department to support and the U.S. Supreme Court to accept
their arguments for school desegregation. For a variety of reasons,
the LDF used the theory and research in An American Dilemma as
"Exhibit A." The LDF thus made the case that segregation itself was
un-American by couching its arguments for equality within a
discourse that emphasized the assimilation of American culture and
values. Additionally, they argued that segregation denied African
Americans the opportunity to embrace true American values, which
implied African Americans were poised to embrace un-American values
if not educated in White schools.

While LDF's strategy to use Gunnar Myrdal's and E. Franklin
Frazier's ideas about Negro's pathological culture was effective in
the late 1940s , Justice Thomas exploited the problematic nature of
this research to forcefully articulate the Court's pernicious
color-blind thesis. By criticizing the work done by the Howard
circle, some sixty years earlier, Thomas advanced conservative
ideals about "race neutrality," while he effectively closed the
Court's door on any further contribution by social scientists on
racial issues.

The district court that ordered the desegregation plan for Kansas
City's schools cited Brown for its rationale that a racial imbalance
in the school system constituted a constitutional violation that
harmed African American children. Justice Thomas found this
citation inimical to the principles of the Constitution. While
Thomas was quick to point out that "under this theory, segregation
injures blacks because blacks, when left on their own, cannot
achieve," he failed to explain that this theoretical perspective is
over 60 years old and that there were various political reasons why
the NAACP LDF chose to employ that particular type social science.
Thomas simply explained: "to my way of thinking, that conclusion [in
Brown] is the result of a jurisprudence based upon a theory of black

By only using the term "black," Thomas skillfully blurred the line
between race and culture. As well, he side stepped explaining how
the rational in Brown was based on Boas' ideas of racial equality
and Franklin's ideas of cultural pathology. Thomas simply collapsed
the concepts of race and culture into an ostensibly common sense
argument about "black inferiority." Thomas' entire argument,
however, falls apart when you put it in historic context or simply
ask "what do you mean by black?" Finally, by disparaging
half-century-old social science, Thomas essentially muzzled
contemporary social theorists who attempt to contribute to the
juridical discourse on race, even in the lower courts. He decreed
with sweeping authority that "the lower courts should not be swayed
by the easy answers of social science, nor should they accept the
findings, and the assumptions, of sociology and psychology at the
price of constitutional principle."

There is little doubt that we are in the throws of an "historic
moment" where the meaning and structure of racial categories in the
U.S. are in flux. Anthropologists can not afford to let its
progressive spirit be twisted and thwarted by people articulating
conservative racial projects. The most recent example, of course, is
Dinesh D'Souza who, in The End of Racism, provides a tortured
account of Boasian anthropology to substantiate his argument that
multiculturalism has failed. Anthropologists must assume the
collective role as "watch dogs" over our contributions to society.
More importantly, anthropologist must reclaim their historic role as
academics who help insure racial equality through research, theory,
and activism.
Lee D. Baker, Ph.D.
Cultural Anthropology, Bx 90091
Durham, NC 27708
919 681 3263