Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, unapologetic for politically conservative views that have enraged most fellow blacks, says he is not about to change.
In a forceful and profoundly personal speech to the nation's largest black lawyers group Wednesday, Thomas said, "It pains me deeply, more deeply than any of you could imagine, to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm."But he resolutely refused to adhere to "an ideological and intellectual . . . prescription assigned to blacks." Never before had Thomas attempted to answer his critics so fully.
"I am a man, free to think for myself," the justice said. "Isn't it time to move on? Isn't it time to realize that being angry with me solves no problems?"
Although his speech appeared to convince few among the nearly 1,000 black lawyers and judges who heard him, National Bar Association President Randy Jones gave Thomas credit for making the effort.
"He's a man who's not afraid to come into the lion's den and face his detractors and critics," said Jones, a federal prosecutor in San Diego. "I think we all have to respect him for that."
For years denounced by minority-rights groups for opposing affirmative action and race-based efforts to give minority voters more political clout, Thomas attended the convention even after some members sought to rescind his invitation.
"I come here today not in anger or to anger . . . not to defend my views but to assert my right to think for myself," Thomas said, telling his critics to stop telling him "I have no right to think the way I do because I'm black."
About affirmative action, he said, "Any effort, policy or program that has as a prerequisite acceptance of the notion that blacks are inferior is a non-starter with me.
"I do not believe that kneeling is a position of strength, nor do I believe that begging is an effective tactic. I am confident that the individual approach, not the group approach, is the better one," he said.
The only black on the nation's highest court, Thomas complained about being "singled out for particularly bilious and venomous assaults" by fellow blacks.
His comments drew little applause and some scattered boos. A threatened walkout did not materialize, however.