UNCLE TOM JUSTICE

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These days washington seems to be filled with white men who make black people uneasy, like Newt the slasher, Bill the waffler and Jesse the crank -- Helms, that is, not Jackson. But the scariest of all the hobgoblins may well be a fellow African American, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In the four years since George Bush chose him to fill the "black seat" vacated by Thurgood Marshall, Thomas has emerged as the high court's most aggressive advocate of rolling back the gains Marshall fought so hard for. The maddening irony is that Thomas owes his seat to precisely the kind of racial preference he goes to such lengths to excoriate. And as long as he is on the court, no other black need apply: Thomas fills a quota of one.

The most disturbing thing about Thomas is not his conclusions, but his twisted reasoning and bilious rage. In his written opinions, he begins with premises that no self-respecting black would disagree with, then veers off into a neverland of color-blind philosophizing in which all race-based policies, from Jim Crow laws designed to oppress minorities to affirmative-action measures seeking to assist them, are conflated into one morally and legally pernicious whole. He delights in gratuitously tongue-lashing the majority of blacks who disagree with him on almost every civil rights issue. He heaps scorn on federal judges who have used the bench to enforce and expand civil rights, accusing them of a paternalistic belief in black inferiority. His harshest critics, like Wade Henderson, Washington director of the N.A.A.C.P., even speculate that "if Thomas had been on the court at the time, he would have opposed the decision in Brown v. Board of Education," the landmark 1954 decision that struck down segregated schools.

Even those legal scholars who think Thomas would have voted to outlaw segregation believe he would have done so in such a way as to severely hobble the drive toward racial equality. "He takes a more limited view than any other justice for the past 40 years of the proper scope of authority of a federal court confronted with a deliberate violation of the Constitution," says Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe.

Indeed, Thomas last week attacked the logic of the Brown decision in his concurring opinion on Missouri v. Jenkins. In that decision the court overturned a federal judge's order that the state continue to fund lavish "magnet" schools in Kansas City because test scores at predominantly black schools still lag behind national averages. According to Thomas, the judge had misinterpreted previous court rulings -- including Brown -- "to support the theory that black students suffer an unspecified psychological harm from segregation that retards their mental and educational development. This approach not only relies upon questionable social-science research rather than constitutional principle, but it also rests on an assumption of black inferiority." This, notes Ted Shaw, the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the Jenkins case, "is probably the first time a Supreme Court Justice has questioned the reasoning in Brown." That it came from a black, says Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr., "makes me want to throw up."

Moreover, despite Thomas' hostility to "questionable social science" when it supports a conclusion he disagrees with, he does not hesitate to incorporate dubious theories into his opinions when they suit his purposes. In his brief concurring opinion in the court's Adarand Constructors v. Pena, in which the court suggested that federal set-aside programs for minority contractors may be unconstitutional, Thomas wrote, "Inevitably, such programs engender attitudes of superiority or, alternatively, provoke resentment among those who believe that they have been wronged by the government's use of race. These programs stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are entitled to preferences." That claim reflects the wisdom of Gingrich country, where, as the House Speaker opined last week, most problems poor black people face are caused by their own "bad habits."

Because Thomas is black, says Shaw, "the positions he takes in race cases give a little bit more encouragement to other Justices who advance views that are at odds with those of most black Americans." The court will soon rule on another vital issue: whether it is constitutional to create majority black districts so that African Americans can be elected to Congress. As they await Thomas' vote, a lot of blacks besides Wyatt Tee Walker are feeling queasy all over again.