Clarence Thomas: The Justice Nobody Knows

Supreme Court Justice Gives First Television Interview To 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft

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Most Americans know very little about the workings of the U.S. Supreme Court or its members, but mention Justice Clarence Thomas, and you are likely to start an argument.

He is the court's only African American, and it's most conservative member. He is arguably the most influential black man in the country, yet he is reviled by many in his own race for his opposition to government programs intended to help minorities.

Most people know very little about him, their opinions shaped by his bitter confirmation battle in which he was accused of sexually harassing a former employee named Anita Hill. Now, 16 years later, he has written a memoir called "My Grandfather's Son," which lays bare a remarkable life and the events that shaped it.

Supreme Court justices are private people who rarely give interviews and Justice Thomas doesn't think much of the press, but he gave correspondent Steve Kroft and 60 Minutes seven days of his life to talk about all of it.

"It's fascinating that people, there's so many people now who will make judgments based on what you look like," Thomas says. "I'm black. So I'm supposed to think a certain way. I'm supposed to have certain opinions. I don't do that. You don't create a box and put people in and then make a lot of generalizations about them."

The justice agrees that there are some misconceptions about him, but says, "I think there are misconceptions about all of us."

"There's been an effort over the last 15, 20 years to create this perception of me. And you can't argue that that's been, in large part, successful," Thomas says.

He is often dismissed as a man of little accomplishment, an opportunistic black conservative who sold out his race, joined the Republican Party and was ultimately rewarded with an affirmative action appointment to the nation's highest court, a sullen, intellectual lightweight so insecure he rarely opens his mouth in oral arguments. The problem with the characterization is that it's unfair and untrue.

"These conceptions or misperceptions, you call them, have accumulated because you haven't really addressed them. You haven't talked about them," Kroft remarks.

"My job is to write opinions. I decide cases and write opinions. It is not to respond to idiocy and critics who make statements that are unfounded," Thomas says. "That doesn't mean that people shouldn't have constructive criticisms, but it should be constructive. Whether or not I'm black or not, that's just silliness. That is not worth responding to."

How much of his life is determined by his race?

"Oh, goodness. I don't know. I'm black. How much of your life is determined by being male? I have no idea. I'm black. That's a fact of life. I'm 5'8 1/2" tall. I don't know how much of my life is determined by being 5'8 1/2" tall. It's just a part of who I am," Thomas tells Kroft.

"But you think of yourself as a black man," Kroft says.

"I'm a man. I'm a man, first and foremost. I'm a citizen of this country. And I happen to be black. I am a human being," Thomas replies.

Thomas believes the Constitution is "color blind" and he is part of an emerging majority on the court that believes that laws granting preferential treatment based on race should be struck down.

But it is Thomas who has been vilified by the civil rights establishment in part because he is black, and because he is viewed as having benefited from some of very programs he now opposes. At best they consider him a hypocrite, at worst a traitor to his own people.

"You've been successful. You moved on. You don't care about people and your race," Kroft says.

"Oh, that's silliness," the justice replies.

"You do care," Kroft remarks.

"Oh, obviously I do," Thomas says. "Come on, you know? But it's none of their business. How much does Justice Scalia care about Italians? Did you ask him that? Did anyone ever ask him? Give me a break. Do I help people? Absolutely. Do I help, love helping black people? Absolutely. And I do. But do I like helping all people? Yes. In particular I like helping people who are disadvantaged, people who don't come from the best circumstances. Do white people live in homeless shelters? Do Hispanics live in homeless shelters? Is disadvantaged exclusive province of blacks? No."