Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fact-checking Clarence Thomas' memory

So apparently Clarence Thomas waxed nostalgic today about race relations in Georgia in the early 1960s:
My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,”
I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds that hard to believe. Even postulating that Savannah was, in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, "the most desegregated city South of the Mason-Dixon line" at the time, this doesn't jibe with what little I know about school desegregation in Georgia.

In fact, just a few minutes searching online turns up some rather different accounts from that same period in Savannah:
“I lived in Garden City,” she said of the late 1950s and early ’60s in west Chatham County. “I knew how ugly some white people could be.”...
Even that did not fully prepare her for those first days at Groves.
The name-calling began even before she got to school.
“That’s when the real taunting began,” she said. “It continued the entire school year.”
and
Bryant described the three-story school on Washington Avenue as being less hostile than what his cohorts found at Groves on the westside, but said it was not a comfortable fit....
Frequently, a white classmate would jostle him and send his books flying. When he tried to pick them up, another student would kick them down the hall.
It was especially hostile in the cafeteria, he said.
“They didn’t like us in there. One guy actually spit in my food,” Bryant said.
and so on. There are more reminiscences in this article (by Jan Skutch), all covering high school experiences in 1963. Here's more, from another article (by Ralph Nichols), about desegregating a middle school two years later:
Going to the bathroom was the worst part of the day for Phyllis Slack.
Teenage girls wearing pleated skirts and blouses with Peter Pan collars laid in wait for Slack, a black girl in an all-white Savannah middle school. Occasionally, boys joined the girls waiting to ambush her in the bathroom.
Sometimes, Slack got away. Other times, she got caught and was subjected to a flurry of kicks and punches.
How can we reconcile these accounts with that of Thomas? I see just 3 possibilities:

1. He magically lived a completely non-representative experience and is disingenuously extrapolating from that to everyone else's experiences in Georgia at the time
2. He is lying, in order to make a political point
3. His memory is going
None of these are particularly encouraging, given Thomas' position as a Supreme Court judge.