Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Monday, August 18, 2008

How is Obama any more qualified than Thomas?

Saturday on the stage of Saddleback Community Church, Barack Obama was asked which Supreme Court justice he would not have nominated if he were president. His answer was Clarence Thomas, about whom he said:
...I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation.
This either questions Thomas' intelligence or his background (or both), so I decided to take a look at the history of Clarence Thomas. And while I was at it, I looked at the history of Barack Obama.

Clarence Thomas was born on June 23, 1948 in a tiny Georgia town. Born into poverty -- his family lived in a one-room shack with dirt floors and without plumbing -- his father left when Clarence was 2. At age 7, Clarence and his brother went to live with their grandfather, who owned a fuel oil business. They made deliveries with their grandfather, learning his ethic of hard work and self-reliance. Clarence's grandfather sent him to Catholic schools, including an all-white boarding school in nearby Savannah, where he overcame racism to play on the football team and achieve excellent grades. He was the only African-American graduate from St. John Vianny Minor Seminary in 1967.

Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His parents split when Barack was 2, and he only saw his father one additional time before he died in 1982. In 1967, his mother remarried and the family moved to his stepfather's native Indonesia. Barack returned to Hawaii in 1971 and lived with his grandparents, attending Punahou Academy as one of three African-American 1979 graduates.

After high school, Clarence Thomas initially attended a Catholic seminary in Missouri, but decided against the priesthood after hearing a classmate's racist comment about Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. He moved to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., graduating cum laude in 1971 with an English degree. While at Holy Cross, he helped found the Black Student Union. After Holy Cross, he moved to New Haven, Conn., where he graduated from the Yale University Law School in 1974.

Barack Obama moved to Los Angeles after high school, attending Occidental College for two years before moving to New York. Transferring to Columbia University, he earned a degree in political science, specializing in international relations.

After Columbia, he worked for a year at the Business International Corp.
and for a year at the New York Public Interest Research Group. During that time, he was also involved with two faith-based community organizations, the Developing Communities Project and the Gamaliel Foundation.

In 1988, he entered the Harvard Law School, where he was named the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated magna cum laude in 1991.

So thus far, we have two African-American men whose fathers bailed when the kids were young, who were raised by their mothers and grandparents, who received the opportunity to attend very good high schools, and who earned degrees from very good colleges. Not much difference.

But here's where it gets a little bit more difficult to compare and contrast, because while Clarence Thomas pursued barely a half-dozen opportunities leading up to his Supreme Court appointment, Barack Obama (as we saw prior to his time at Harvard) was much more diversified in his pursuits.

And it's also the point where you see two African-American men go in different directions as it relates to their attitudes toward race. One man disavowed racial preferences, even though he benefited from them in a variety of ways; the other man served in positions (both paid and unpaid) in which his race was a key motivating factor.

After earning his law degree, Clarence Thomas interviewed with various law firms, but as in college, he felt he was treated differently because of his race. (One biography called it "resentment toward the tokenism of affirmative action, [which] combined with his grandfather's lessons on self-sufficiency and independence, had moved Thomas into a circle of African American conservatives who rejected the dependency fostered among blacks by the welfare state.") He instead moved to Missouri to work as an assistant attorney general under John Danforth.

When Danforth was elected to the United States Senate in 1977, Thomas moved to St. Louis to work as a corporate attorney at the Monsanto Corp. Two years later, he moved to Washington to work as a legislative assistant to Danforth -- but only on the condition that he
not work on civil rights issues.

And yet, his lack of desire for facing racial issues still led him to positions that dealt directly and specifically with those issues. In 1981, the Reagan Administration tapped Thomas as the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, a post he held until he was promoted in 1982 to the chairmanship of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In those positions, he insisted that minorities should succeed on their merits, not on the backs of programs like affirmative action.

He worked at the EEOC until 1990, when President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Less than 16 months later, Bush nominated him to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by retiring African-American justice Thurgood Marshall. The irony could not have been lost on Thomas that his nomination was based, at least in part, on his race. As another biography said, "Although President George Bush stated that he chose Thomas for his legal qualifications, it would take conscious effort to ignore the political pressures on Bush to name a black candidate after the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, the Court's first and only black justice."

When Thomas was sworn in to his seat on the Supreme Court, he was 43 years and four month old.

After Harvard, Barack Obama went in a multitude of directions. He was the director of Illinois Project Vote, which registered African-American voters for the 1992 election. He also began a four-year stint as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School (followed by an eight-year stint as a senior lecturer). In 1993, he accepted an Associate position with Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development. He served Of Counsel at the firm from 1996 to 2004, although his law license went inactive in 2002.

Between 1992 and 2002, he was also on the boards of directors for several groups that focused on civil rights, minority empowerment and economic justice: Public Allies, the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Joyce Foundation, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and the Lugenia Burns Hope Center.

Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, gaining reelection in both 1998 and 2002. In 2004, he was elected to the United States Senate. Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States a little more than two years later.

If he is elected president, his age on election day will be 47 years, three months.

So with Clarence Thomas, you have a man who earned degrees from two of the nation's finest universities, Holy Cross and Yale. (Say what you want about how he got in, but affirmative action doesn't earn you the grades you need to qualify, nor does it earn you the grades you need to receive the diploma.) He then worked for two years in state government, two years in the private sector, two years in the U.S. Capitol, 10 years dealing with civil and employment rights from a government perspective, and almost two years in the federal judiciary.

That set of experiences is what he brought to the Supreme Court.

With Barack Obama, you have a man who earned degrees from two of the nation's finest universities, Columbia and Harvard. Then in overlapping fashion, he worked for 11 years in the private sector, 12 years in academia, and 10 years with various community organizations, along with eight years in state government and three in the federal government.

Those are the experiences he brings with him in his quest for the presidency.

So here's my question: According to Obama, Clarence Thomas' education and (almost) two decades of experience -- including a variety of government roles and personal challenges -- failed to make him a "strong enough jurist or legal thinker" to qualify as one of nine Supreme Court justices. So why is Barack Obama -- with the same education and (almost) two decades of experience in various government roles and personal challenges -- a strong enough leader to become the one-and-only president of the greatest nation on the planet?

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home