No room for Justice Thomas at African-American history museum

It has been widely reported on conservative news outlets that the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. has virtually no room for Justice Clarence Thomas. According to this report, it “treats Justice Thomas like a mere footnote while heralding the woman who accused him of sexual harassment.”

Mark Paoletta discusses the slight here. He argues that the story of Justice Thomas’ rise from poverty in a small town in the segregated south to the Supreme Court should be made known to all Americans.

Absent left-wing bias, the new museum would be doing its part to make that story known. After all, as Paoletta points out, the museum has room for the candy-red Cadillac driven by Chuck Berry and the uneven-bar grips used by Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics. O.J.’s Bronco and Rodney King also feature.

But not Justice Thomas.

The point isn’t only that Clarence Thomas made it to the Supreme Court, though that alone should merit his inclusion. Paoletta reminds us that even left-leaning observers like Tom Goldstein and Prof. Mark Tushnet concede that Thomas has made a strong contribution to the Court’s jurisprudence. Goldstein says he can be considered our greatest current Justice.

Moreover, as Paoletta explains, Thomas’ jurisprudence has strong ties to African-American intellectual history:

A 2005 law review article by Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, who describes herself as a “liberal black womanist,” found that Thomas’ views are “deeply grounded in black conservative thought, which has a ‘raced’ history and foundation that are distinct from white conservatism.”

She explains that “Justice Thomas’ voice is ‘raced’ in a way that exhibits significant concern for black people. . . . Indeed as I was researching and learning about black conservative ideology, I found myself (surprisingly) nodding in agreement with some of its concepts and understandings about the issues facing the black community, even though I disagreed with the ultimate route proposed for addressing these problems.”

Plainly, Justice Thomas’ accomplishments and distinctive voice should compel his inclusion in a museum that claims a commitment to exploring “what it means to be an American” and how American values are “reflected in African American history and culture.”

What is the museum’s explanation for excluding Thomas? Its spokesperson stated:

There are many compelling personal stories about African Americans who have become successful in various fields, and, obviously, Associate Justice Thomas is one of them. However, we cannot tell every story in our inaugural exhibitions.

Naturally, the museum can’t tell the story of all successful African-Americans. But I doubt it can point to any African-American as successful and important as Justice Thomas who has been excluded.

And let’s consider other successful African-Americans whose story the museum declines to tell:

Cora Brown, first African American woman elected to a United States state Senate, winning a seat in the Michigan State Senate in 1952.

Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., who served in the Georgia state legislature and is a pro-life advocate with Priests for Life.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), first African-American senator from the state of South Carolina, the first black Republican elected to the United States Senate since the election of Edward Brooke in 1966, and the first elected from the South since 1881, four years after the end of Reconstruction.

Michael Steele, first African-American chairperson of the Republican National Committee, who served from January 2009 until January 2011.

Kenneth Blackwell, mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio from 1979 to 1980, the Ohio State Treasurer from 1994 to 1999, and Ohio Secretary of State from 1999 to 2007.

Thomas Sowell, American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author.

Shelby Steele, American author, columnist, documentary filmmaker, and a Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Walter E. Williams, American economist who is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

What do they have in common? All are, to one degree or another, conservative.

I had looked forward to visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But since the Smithsonian apparently has decided to exclude black conservatives from museum exhibits, I think conservatives should exclude themselves from being museum visitors.

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