Clarence Thomas Interview: `I Am Not An Uncle Tom' -- Opinions Haven't Hurt Blacks, He Says

WASHINGTON - In an unusual meeting with an invited group of black journalists and other African Americans, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas rejected suggestions that his opinions have hurt blacks or that he has forgotten his roots.

"I am not an Uncle Tom," he said. "I do not pay attention to that nonsense. That is one of the problems we have as black people. We don't allow differing views."

Repeating a vow he has made before to remain on the court in spite of critics, Thomas said, "I'm going to be here for 40 years. For those who don't like it, get over it."

Justices virtually never hold on-the-record meetings with the media. And Thomas, appointed in 1991, has been the most media-shy of all the current justices. He has turned down interviews and repeated requests for informal visits by reporters from many publications.

Thomas, who would not talk about specific cases during the meeting, said criticism does not bother him and defended his version of a "colorblind Constitution."

"I disagree with the prevailing point of view of some black leaders that special treatment for blacks is acceptable," Washington's Afro-American newspaper quoted Thomas as saying.

Thomas also was quoted as saying, "It would seem that some black people want to say that when you, as a black, become successful, you cease to be black. That's ridiculous. If a white person becomes successful, (does he) cease to be white?"

Participants in Wednesday's session said it was designed to appeal to Thomas' black constituency. Armstrong Williams, a longtime Thomas friend who brought the group together, said he chose people who would be open to seeing Thomas as a "human being."

Williams, a local business executive and radio host who served as Thomas' confidential assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has been a vocal supporter of Thomas. He said Thomas had "nothing to do" with selecting the group at Wednesday's meeting.

"He never knew who was on the list," Williams said. "He trusted me."

Responding to the fact that no whites were there, Williams said, "It had nothing to do with race. I found people who wanted to know him. . . . I have an obligation to have him portrayed differently." He argues the media have painted Thomas as "a monster."

Williams added that he intended to take a hand-picked group of reporters to the court every three months. He said he would choose only those who had demonstrated that they would be fair to Thomas.

Court public-information officer Toni House said Thomas would not comment on the meeting.

Williams said that of 30 or so people who attended, five were journalists. They were James Wright of the Afro-American; Barry Murray of New Dimensions publishing; Ernest White, a talk show host on WDCU-radio; Raynard Jackson of National Minority Politics, and a reporter from Black Professional magazine in Baltimore.

Williams said most of the people he selected were his friends. Very few were lawyers or ever had been to the Supreme Court, according to those who attended.

Donna Brazile, a longtime liberal activist and current administrative assistant to Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate to Congress from Washington, D.C., said she was ambivalent, given her liberal views, about visiting Thomas. But she said she was struck by Thomas' willingness to reach out.

"As a young African-American woman on my first visit to the court, I was very moved by some of his statements," she said, stressing that she went on her own and not as a representative of her Democratic boss. Brazile also emphasized that she was evaluating his personal style rather than his legal views.

The Rev. Imagene Stewart, who runs a local homeless shelter, said, "It was just like he was talking to some brothers and sisters. There was little ol' me, sitting there with a Supreme Court justice."

Stewart, who is also active in local Republican politics, added that "some things got on his nerves, (including) that because he is a black man he is supposed to represent black views. But that's what I love about him: He represents a fresh new perspective."

Another media participant who was critical of Thomas' votes in civil-rights cases said he was equally warmed by the justice's openness.

"I would still be critical of him, but I feel I have more understanding of him now," said the man who requested anonymity. "He explained the dynamic of his job. He said he was like a referee on a football field. That he has to follow the rules, the law."

Mainstream civil-rights groups have criticized Thomas' legal positions and his strong alliances with conservatives since President Bush nominated him to the court in 1991.

Thomas has narrowly interpreted federal voting-rights law and criticized specially drawn black-majority districts intended to enhance minorities' political power.