The Clarence Thomas Museum Controversy

Sometimes you just can’t withhold judgment.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture unveiled its latest exhibit, one featuring Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a figure whose absence from the museum when it opened a year ago raised eyebrows among conservatives.

According to the Washington Times, Thomas appears as part of an exhibit that was installed just before the museum’s one-year anniversary Sunday. That exhibit honors Thomas as well as the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—the only two African Americans ever to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Given Thomas’ accomplishments, the Times reports, his apparent previous absence from the museum sparked controversy among conservatives who suspected Smithsonian officials of ideological bias and called for Thomas’ inclusion.

I doubt that Smithsonian officials chose not to initially feature Thomas because of their own ideological bias: in all likelihood, those officials figured the sight of Thomas would be offensive to visitors who feel that Anita Hill told the truth in 1991 (an idea anathema to conservatives). However, it was inevitable that right-wingers would raise a ruckus about Thomas not being included.

It’s ironic that the conclusion to this controversy takes place right around the tenth anniversary of the release of Thomas’s memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, in which Thomas actually acknowledged in Chapter Seven that the Reagan Administration, in which he obsequiously served as the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, didn’t believe black lives mattered:

My main quarrel with the Reagan administration was that I thought it needed a positive civil-rights agenda, instead of merely railing against quotas and affirmative action…But I found it impossible to get the administration to pay sufficient attention to such matters. Too many of the president’s political appointees seemed more interested in playing to the conservative bleachers–and I’d come to realize, as I told a reporter, that “conservatives don’t exactly break their necks to tell blacks that they’re welcome.” Was it because they were prejudiced? Perhaps some of them were, but the real reason, I suspected, was that blacks didn’t vote for Republicans, nor would Democrats work with President Reagan on civil-rights issues. As a result there was little interest within the administration in helping a constituency that wouldn’t do anything in return to help the president. My suspicions were confirmed when I offered my assistance to President Reagan’s reelection campaign, only to be met with near-total indifference. One political consultant was honest enough to tell me straight out that since the president’s reelection strategy didn’t include the black vote, there was no role for me.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that the museum probably shouldn’t honor those who used their power to screw over the disadvantaged of all races, colors and creeds. The problem is, of course, if that one has a museum honoring prominent figures in African American history without specific regard to their political views, that museum will inevitably face, and bow down to, pressure to honor prominent right-wing African-Americans. The conservatives who went after the Smithsonian knew exactly what they were doing.

Perhaps some progressive philanthropists should finance a National Progressive Museum of African American History and Culture, specifically honoring African-Americans who used their influence and voice to lift up, rather than hold down, those who needed help. Contrary to right-wing assumption, such a museum would not feature only Democrats; there’d certainly be space for such figures as the late Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, arguably the last truly progressive-minded Republican to serve on Capitol Hill, and Arthur Fletcher, the former Civil Rights Commission chairman long regarded as the “father of affirmative action.” Being a black member of the GOP would not necessarily be a barrier to inclusion in such a museum; being a black member of the GOP willing to carry the proverbial basket of deplorables, as Thomas has for nearly three decades on the High Court, would be.

It’s natural to wonder if Thomas, having spent so many years distancing himself from African-Americans, would even visit his own exhibit at the Smithsonian. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does. In fact, once he’s done observing the exhibit, he’ll probably have a Coke and a smile.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.