- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously declared he could not define pornography but knew it when he saw it. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas does not define affirmative action in the same way a lot of other people do, but he knows when he has not benefited from it.

He reveals that view and more in a rare and surprisingly expansive interview with Business Week senior writer Diane Brady, posted on the magazine’s Web site.

Justice Thomas has a reputation for saying little on the bench and even less to reporters. But he granted this rare interview because Miss Brady was writing an article about Justice Thomas’ beloved college mentor, the Rev. John E. Brooks, former president of Holy Cross College.

Father Brooks’ story is instructive. In 1968, when American cities were on fire with riots, assassinations and antiwar demonstrations, Father Brooks was the prestigious Massachusetts college’s academic dean who set out to recruit African-Americans.

To him, that meant doing something more than placing a want ad in the newspapers that said “We’re here.” He personally went out to inner-city Catholic schools (most public schools turned him away, he says) and offered scholarships. He even drove some promising kids to the Worcester, Mass., campus to check it out. One was Edward P. Jones, who more recently authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Known World.”

“The fact that he had driven down from Massachusetts [to Mr. Jones’ home in Washington, D.C.] told me something in a very quiet way,” Mr. Jones told the magazine.

That year the number of blacks entering the school of 650 soared to 28 from an average of about two per class. Father Brooks promised opportunities and scholarships but no special breaks or programs to ease their transition. He pushed them not only to meet but exceed the school’s high academic standards.

Father Brooks, born in 1923, wanted to open the college to women, too, but was blocked until after he became president of the Jesuit school in 1970. “Jesuits, he argued, were supposed to educate leaders, and it was clear to him the pool of potential leaders was widening fast,” Miss Brady wrote.

Besides Justice Thomas and Mr. Jones, that pioneer group included Ted Wells, the National Law Journal’s 2006 Lawyer of the Year and, more recently, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s attorney. Other alumni include investment banker Stanley E. Grayson, a former New York City deputy mayor, and former pro football player Eddie J. Jenkins, now chairman of the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

Today Justice Thomas is a fierce opponent of affirmative action while Mr. Wells, a co-chairman of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Board of Directors, strongly defends it. Yet, like many of their classmates, both think the world of Father Brooks, and it is easy to see why. He did precisely what an ideal affirmative action plan is supposed to do. He wasn’t satisfied with waiting for a diverse talent pool to come to him. He went out, found it and recruited it. Once they were enrolled, he kept an eye on them as he would with any other students, but by their own accounts left them largely to find their own way and succeed without special breaks.

Yet, when Miss Brady asked him directly, Justice Thomas was quick to deny he benefited from affirmative action. “Oh, no,” he said. “I was going to go home to Savannah,” after he left a Missouri seminary, “when a nun suggested Holy Cross. That’s how I wound up there,” Thomas said.

“I was never recruited,” he said. ” … I just showed up. But somebody had to recognize it was a good place to be, and it was a Franciscan nun. The others were recruited.”

Fine. As I have often said, what’s important in such matters is not how you got into college but how you leave. Affirmative action at its best opens doors, but it does not guarantee results. For that, you’re on your own.

What concerns me more is Justice Thomas’ own enlistment policies. When he and Justice Anthony Kennedy testified in the high court’s budget hearing last Thursday before the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jose Serrano, New York Democrat, asked about the diversity of their clerks. Justice Thomas expressed an odd sort of pride in his clerks’ uniformity. “Mine happen to be all white males,” he said of his current clerks. “I don’t have quotas.”

In other words, the sort of program Father Brooks followed to increase nonwhite enrollment in Holy Cross is precisely what Justice Thomas has no intention to do with the Supreme Court’s highly competitive clerk positions. I respect Justice Thomas’ view, but I prefer Father Brooks’ idea.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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