Is Clarence Thomas the most powerful Black man in America?

OPINION: A New Yorker article makes a compelling case that the Supreme Court justice is indeed the most powerful Black man in the nation. It took the five stages of grief to get me to agree.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I threw up in my mouth a bit when I saw this line in a New Yorker article about Clarence Thomas: “The most powerful Black man in America.” The writer, Cory Robin, went on to say “It’s no longer a matter of Clarence Thomas’s Court. Increasingly, it’s Clarence Thomas’s America.” That’s just gross, I immediately thought. That’s completely untrue!

I began working my way through actually constructing an argument that proves Robin wrong, and that’s when my whole day began breaking down. I asked my smartest friends. I asked Twitter, but those words continued dancing in my mind, undefeated. The most powerful Black man in America. You’ve got to be kidding. That’s when I went through the five stages of grief…

1. Denial: I thought, No way. That can’t be right. The writer has forgotten…something. Being on the Supreme Court means immense power, but you have to get four other justices on board with your ideas or you have no power. The New Yorker contends that “Insiders have long known that Thomas is the right’s pacesetter on the Court.” Others are less certain that Thomas is a powerful justice. Elie Mystal, a lawyer and legal analyst who studies the court, says as far as the modern justices go, Clarence is not one of the powerful ones. “When I think of Supreme Court power,” Mystal told me, “I think, who is the fifth vote? And that’s not Thomas. That’s [Brett] Kavanaugh and [Chief Justice John] Roberts.” 

Recently released statistics from SCOTUSBlog show that in the recently completed term, Kavanaugh and Roberts voted with the majority 95 percent of the time. Their votes were decisive more than anyone else’s. Thomas voted with the majority 80 percent of the time, which is the second lowest number among the court’s conservatives. “Thomas,” Mystal said, “is an extremist and while extremism is ascendant right now, he’s not ‘influencing’ anybody.” But in recent years, Thomas has been in the majority frighteningly often on major rulings that significantly changed American life. Can women legally get an abortion? Should affirmative action be legal? Next up: Can gay people get married? Even though he can’t just make a decision on his own, he has been part of changing America in major ways. He is a reliable friend to the conservative movement. I feel sick.

2. Anger: I thought, Is he even Black? That’s when my higher self popped in. Ugh, yes, he’s Black. Ol’ Uncle Clarence has displayed self-hating qualities and is not a hero in most Black people’s eyes, but he’s still Black. To be self-hating is not an uncommon response to being in an oppressed minority. So even if you hate yourself for being Black, you’re still Black. Just because he’s not being Black in the way you want him to be Black doesn’t mean he’s not. We can’t excommunicate people from the race just because we don’t like some of their ideas.

3. Bargaining: I thought, there must be another name out there. A more powerful Black person. Um…so…I thought for a while. Barack Obama, even though he’s a former president, still has a lot of power, right? He can call anyone and get almost anything accomplished. But obviously, his power has dropped since leaving the presidency. He doesn’t have a daily impact on American life the way Clarence did in helping to eliminate major policies. Robert F. Smith is probably the richest Black American of them all—he’s an investor who’s worth over $5 billion, meaning he controls a significant part of the economy and can do almost anything he can imagine. But it’s hard to see Smith’s economic power as akin to the political or judicial power that Clarence is wielding. Damn. This thought experiment is not going well.

I tried to think of other Black men who are truly powerful, and I blanked. If the writer had said “the most powerful Black person in America,” I would have said no, Kamala Harris, the vice president, second in line to the presidency, and probably the next Democratic nominee for president after the Biden administration ends. She’s on a higher plane in this government than Clarence. Also, Oprah—c’mon. She’s like the queen of America. And saying Oprah makes me think of Tyler Perry, a Black male billionaire, who’s definitely changing lives. But not quite like Clarence…

4. Depression: What is power? What does power mean? It’s the ability to influence people in real ways. It’s the ability to change people’s lives. It’s about distributing resources and/or shaping the way people think and live. Jay-Z and Beyoncé have power in terms of their ability to make us buy things. Barack Obama had the power to make us believe in certain ideas. Clarence has the power to shape the system in ways that change how we live. And he’s doing that. A president has more power than a SCOTUS justice, but Obama was POTUS for just eight years. Clarence has been on the bench for over 30 years and counting. 

5. Acceptance: Maybe Clarence Thomas is the most powerful Black man in America. His power would wane with the death (or retirement) of some of the conservative justices, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. In all likelihood, Thomas will be on the bench for years to come, constantly pushing America rightward and slowly destroying everything that’s good about this country. I hate it here.  


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

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