Justice Thomas talks about the lasting influence of the man who guided him through his years at Holy Cross and why he’s not a beneficiary of affirmative action.
In this exclusive interview with BusinessWeek senior writer Diane Brady, Thomas reflects on racial politics, his job, his college crowd, and the influence of Reverend John E. Brooks on his life.
Thank you for meeting with me.
Father Brooks asked me to do it. One of the reasons I don’t do media interviews is, in the past, the media often has its own script. One reason these stories are never told is that they are contrary to the script that people play by. The media, unfortunately, have been universally untrustworthy because they have their own notions of what I should think or I should do.
It’s sad that it took this long and a business publication to be able to sit down with this brilliant justice and find out what makes him tick.
Father Brooks made a point of trying to recruit a lot more African Americans to campus in the months before you came. Do you think that recruitment drive helped you?
Oh no. I was going to go home to Savannah when a nun suggested Holy Cross. That’s how I wound up there. Your industry has suggested that we were all recruited. That’s a lie. Really, it’s a lie. I don’t mean a mistake. It’s a lie. I had always been an honors student. I was the only black kid in my high school in Savannah and one of two or three blacks in my class during my first year of college in the seminary. I just transferred. I had always had really high grades so that was never a problem. It was the only school I applied to. It was totally fortuitous.…The thing that has astounded me over the years is that there has been such an effort to roll that class into people’s notion of affirmative action. It was never really looked at. It was just painted over. Things were much more nuanced than that….You hear this junk. It’s just not consistent with what really happened.
Did you have a lot in common with the other black students?
The assumption is that, since you’re all black, you have something in common. That’s like saying because you’re all women, you have a lot in common. You might have nothing in common with these people. There were some white students that I actually had a lot in common with. I had a great roommate. He’s now a pediatrician in the Hartford area. I didn’t have any difficulty making friends. I had already been through this—finding common ground with kids who were ostensibly of different backgrounds. I didn’t have difficulties getting along with anybody—black or white. Be clear about that. And I was a good student from the beginning and academically got along with everybody.
I know that must be hard to believe for liberals, but not all blacks are alike and pro-affirmative action.
Did you get caught up in the politics of the era?
We all did. I felt very connected to it, probably more than some other kids. But that was a flash in the pan. If you’re upset and you don’t have the answers, you latch on to things. That wasn’t so unusual, whether it was the race issues or the antiwar issues. But then you have sane people around—you have adults around like Father Brooks—who give you a long leash but hold you accountable. That’s what people don’t like to talk about. In the end, we were all held accountable. There were people who flunked out. There were people who were dismissed for academic and other reasons. You were held accountable. Those of us who did well were rewarded as students. It was an environment in which you had an opportunity to excel. Father Brooks always understood we were in a tough situation and he wanted to make it work. He wasn’t trying to prove a point. He wasn’t making any kind of a statement. He was trying to bring kids there who could benefit from that environment. That’s one of the reasons he was so successful. He was just trying to help. The school was trying to help. He wasn’t making a statement. He was just doing the right thing.
Why do you think some people are so eager to cast you as a beneficiary of affirmative action?
That was the creation of the politicians, the people with a lot of mouth and nothing to say. They had a story and everything had to fit into their story. It discounts other people’s achievements. Ask Ted how many all-nighters he pulled. It discounts those. It’s so discouraging to see the fraudulent renditions of very complicated and different lives of people who were struggling in a new world for them. Everything becomes affirmative action. There wasn’t some grand plan. I just showed up.
How else could a black man achieve success? It must have been affirmative action. He certainly could not work hard and attain it.