In September 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, in which he pledged to free the Confederate slaves. Just over a year later he delivered the Gettysburg Address, in which he repudiated the paternalism of the slaveholders and affirmed America’s core belief that all men are created equal. In striking out against paternalism, Lincoln drew on arguments he advanced in an 1859 letter. Paternalist ideas, he charged in that letter, were a betrayal of the “definitions and axioms of free society,” a warmed-over defense of “classification, caste, and legitimacy,” the principles of the ancien régime.
Nearly 15 decades later, paternalism is alive and well in the affirmative-action policies favored by the country’s liberal establishment. Paternalism exists wherever one group, believing itself to possess superior qualities, takes upon itself to act as guardian to another group—ostensibly to help that group, but in truth to exercise coercive power over it. Implicit in affirmative action is the belief that all men are not created equal: certain minorities, such as blacks, are less equal than others, and therefore require special help. Affirmative action promotes not equality but classification: its beneficiaries bear the subtle stigma of caste. Like that other creation of the liberal establishment, the welfare state, affirmative action is supposed to help those whom the state has designated as “underprivileged.” In reality, it works to break their spirit.
The tragedy of affirmative action is nakedly apparent in the career of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, was published Monday. Liberals portray Justice Thomas as a beneficiary of affirmative action. He is in fact its victim. A man of character and intellect, Thomas rose from a poverty all but incomprehensible to most Americans today. He studied for the priesthood, went to college at Holy Cross and law school at Yale, and became a distinguished lawyer and jurist. Yet the liberal mandarins have made these triumphs bitter by continually disparaging Thomas as a token appointee. His accomplishments are thus made to look dubious; the force of character and will that enabled him to rise from a shack in Pin Point, Georgia, to the United States Supreme Court, is overlooked.
President Bush has spoken of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Thomas says that he first encountered this species of prejudice at Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 1974. Ever since then, he has found himself typecast as a black man promoted above his abilities, one who owed his initial elevation to the grace of the mandarins—who in turn expected him both to be properly grateful for their condescension and to adhere faithfully to their party line. Yes, marster, just as marster pleases.
Thomas rebelled against the paternalism of the liberal elites, and he has paid a price for it. I was a second-year law student at Yale when, in 1991, the first President Bush nominated Thomas for a seat on the Supreme Court. I well remember the skepticism with which Thomas’s alma mater greeted the nomination. I did not anticipate the depths to which the elites would sink, a short time later, in their attempt to defame an uppity black who dared to question the paternal regime. They used one of the oldest weapons in the paternalist arsenal against Thomas when, during the Anita Hill fiasco, they implicitly revived, on the flimsiest of grounds, the ugly stereotype that black men are more prone to sexual misconduct than white men. It is easy to imagine the bitterness that such treatment must have engendered in Thomas. The elites, not content with depicting him as a moron—the lucky beneficiary of their favor—insisted on dragging his character through the mud. If Thomas nurses resentment against those who engineered the quota system, one can understand why.
Mary Chesnut, the brilliant diarist of the Civil War, pointed to one of paternalism’s perverse effects when she said of her slaves: “They go about in their black masks, not a ripple or an emotion showing.” The slaves fashioned those masks as a form of self-defense: if they let their true feelings show—their frustration, their indignation, their rage—they would be humiliated, whipped, mutilated, perhaps lynched. The modern paternalism of affirmative action, though its degradations are of course far less severe than those of the plantation, obliges its supposed beneficiaries to present the same sphinx-like facade to the world. They know that every word they utter will be scrutinized for evidence that the quota system has raised them above the level of their real abilities.
Thomas’s detractors have accused him of wearing just such a mask, and of cultivating a sullen, impenetrable reserve. At last, however, he has, in his compelling memoir, spoken out and revealed the brilliance and force of his personality. Though his rebellion against liberal paternalism was punished with what he aptly called a “high-tech lynching,” Thomas is in spirit unbowed. Yet his career remains a poignant reminder of the tragedy that results whenever the country strays from its faith that all men are created equal.