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The Enigma of Clarence Thomas

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  157 ratings  ·  33 reviews

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas is a groundbreaking revisionist take on the Supreme Court justice everyone knows about but no one knows.

Most people can tell you two things about Clarence Thomas: Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment, and he almost never speaks from the bench. Here are some things they don’t know: Thomas is a black nationalist. In college he memorized

Kindle Edition, 298 pages
Published September 24th 2019 by Metropolitan Books
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Sep 28, 2019 rated it liked it
I really liked Robin’s other books and I love that he takes Thomas seriously. I thought the analysis of his views of the white and black constitution were fascinating. However, the thesis of the book is that Thomas is a Black Nationalist. He asserts this with a lot of knowledge of Thomas, but unfortunately no knowledge of Black Nationalism. To say that Thomas liked Malcolm X isn’t going to cut it. He was a liberal in college. All Robin's evidence (i.e. Thomas's opinions and talks) just show that ...more
JP Beaty
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An interesting and deeply troubling account of Clarence Thomas’ jurisprudence. The book does an admirable job of tracing Thomas’ youthful fascination with black nationalism into the bleak fatalism of his conservatism. As a piece of revisionist analysis the book carefully unmoors Thomas from the popular understanding of him as Scalia’s lapdog and draws out the unique bleakness of his constitutional vision, outside the norms of the extreme right. The section on capitalism and the first amendment ...more
Teddy Kupfer
Jun 12, 2019 rated it liked it
Enjoyable and brisk read by an eminent left-wing scholar that, happily, engages with Thomas's life, jurisprudence, and philosophy in a way the standard center-left Greenhouse-Toobinite dismissal does not (a dismissive reaction that, Robin rightly suggests, carries not a faint whiff of racist condescension). The first two-thirds of this book are provocative and very interesting. But Robin is so deeply cynical about textualism and originalism asserts in the last section an extravagant and ...more
Christopher McQuain
4.5 -- All of the deep learning; lucidity and erudition; and subtle, expansive observation and argumentation one has come to expect from a Corey Robin book are in full force here. With its abundant fresh, sharp, nuanced takes on a subject as vaguely known and misunderstood (by both supporters and critics) as he is galvanizing, THE ENIGMA OF CLARENCE THOMAS is both a sobering accounting of the perverse (yet, as it turns out, disturbingly understandable) worldview of one of the most powerful, ...more
Feb 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: finished
This is one of the most eye-opening books I've ever read about someone prominent in American politics. For years I have given no thought to Clarence Thomas except to regret his existence. However this exploration of his opinions on politics based on interviews he's given and the dissents and opinions he's written while on the Supreme Court is enlightening. I had no idea Thomas is a black nationalist; that in college he was an admirer of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X (and still is an admirer ...more
Oct 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
An excellent, succinct book on some of the roots of Clarence Thomas’ thinking. Basically, Robin’s thesis is that much of Thomas’ approach to the constitution is driven by a black nationalism that flowered in his collegiate times and that still burns inside him despite his move rightward since then.

Robin doesn’t just say this out of nowhere. He gets information from collegiate classmates, takes seriously Thomas’ own comments on his formative influences (beyond black nationalism, he has actually
Sharad Pandian
Nov 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics, race, america
Feb 03, 2020 rated it liked it
The book succeeds when it carefully analyzes Thomas' legal opinions. He does not emerge as a black nationalist, since Robin never is able to offer a coherent definition as to what that means in the 21st century. Citing everyone from Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey to Thomas Sowell only muddies the definition. Thomas has been a conservative for most of his public career. Robin tries to make the case that Thomas is that way because of his grandfather's strict parenting, and there ...more
Sean Chick
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I was a bit surprised this book came out so soon after the second edition of The Reactionary Mind, since Robin is not a fast writer in my experience. More shocking was Robin's thesis that Clarence Thomas is a black nationalist. To get at this Robin makes references to Thomas' past as a campus radical and before that as being among the first to attend integrated schools in Savannah. As with Robin's sharp writing and observations, it makes for a read that is cerebral, humane, and cutting. Part I, ...more
Laura Brahm
Dec 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Most people think they already know Clarence Thomas. And that's a problem.

If you're liberal, you think he's an idiot, or crazy, or a monster. If you're conservative, you think he's a hero who's willing to stick it to the liberal establishment and attack integration policies.

Undeniably, he is one of the most powerful Black men in America. Why are so few of us willing to take a closer look?

If you think you know everything there is to know about Clarence Thomas, or if you hate Thomas and think
Brock Titlow
Nov 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Good analysis of Thomas’s jurisprudence

Robin does a great job of analyzing a juror that is rarely discussed due to his quiet demeanor on the bench, but who deserves much more attention. Thomas is perhaps one of the more interesting and consequential justices to serve in the 21st century and Robin’s work will hopefully make this clearer to readers.
Sergio Valverde
Oct 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent work by a political theorist. Robin makes a convincing case of the black nationalist roots of Thomas's ultra-conservative jurisprudence. The author is also a superb writer, a rare quality in current academia.
Jim Cullison
Oct 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In excavating the gnarled ideology of Justice Clarence Thomas, Corey Robin has produced a taut, chilling, and persuasive exposition of a seemingly opaque world view that in fact, operates according to a supremely dystopian internal logic that readers should find unnerving. Adhering to an especially hopeless form of racial Hobbesianism in framing his opinions, Thomas offers bitterly grim prescriptions for often rightly diagnosed ills. This author has rendered a valuable and enthralling service ...more
Dec 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Justice Thomas is popularly known for the Anita Hill incident and saying little to nothing during oral arguments. Combined with his blackness and being the most conservative member on the court in an era when conservatives have been working against the black community in every respect has often led left-leaning people to conclude that Thomas is simply stupid, a puppet or has his clerks write his opinions for him, etc. Robin points out these are criticisms that Thurgood Marshall also caught in ...more
Dec 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
I want to first state that I have based my knowledge on the audiobook version of this book. I find it to be fairly difficult to really retain information from audiobooks (as it’s difficult to take notes and go back to other sections for reference). Therefore, in my opinion, I’ve taken away the main concepts that really stand out (as those are what my brain is capable of remembering, lol). I enjoyed how the book was broken down into 3 “totems”: Race, Capitalism, and The Constitution. It helped me ...more
Gayla Bassham
I am awarding this book 5 stars not because I agree with every word in it (I don't) but because it is an illuminating and path-breaking book that should be read by everyone with an interest in the Supreme Court, even (and perhaps especially) liberals like me! This is a short book with a lot to say, and it is worth a careful read. Corey Robin's thesis is that Clarence Thomas's jurisprudence is fundamentally understood and (here's the provocative part) rooted in large part in Thomas's commitment ...more
Adrienne Hugo
Oct 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read a nonfiction book from time-to-time. The Enigma of Clarence Thomas first got my attention in a review in The Atlantic magazine. I have always been troubled by Clarence Thomas and think the word "enigma" is à propos if a bit more sterile than the descriptors I would have chosen. Author Corey Robin explains Clarence Thomas through the themes of race, capitalism, politics, and the Constitution. As I read it, the author portrays a man who is a black nationalist who believes that racism is ...more
What a difference eight years of devastating upheaval in the political system and a whole lot of bullshit under the bridge makes! I remember well the fracas around Robin’s last book, “The Reactionary Mind.” In that, Robin, a political theorist working out of Brooklyn College, was cast as a hurler -- of mud, bombs, bricks, epithets, you name it -- for the faux pas of pointing out that what binds the political right across space and time is a dedication to hierarchy for its own sake. People -- ...more
Paul Keister
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The subject of this book is difficult, and Cory Robin doesn't flinch from portraying the full details of this surprisingly original and challenging political actor who is a key player the modern conservative movement. Thomas's views can be characterized as darkly cynical, but they're nevertheless very provocative given the history of race in the US and Thomas's personal experience as an African American man growing up in the south, attending mostly white elite schools, and finally finding a ...more
Collin Hotchkiss
Jan 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Clarence Thomas views the problem of racism in much the same way as your favorite liberal authors, but comes to much uglier conclusions about what must be done. Corey Robin lays out convincingly how Thomas, the most conservative Supreme Court justice of our time (and possibly the last century?) could have been born of the Black Power movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. Like many black Americans, Thomas recognizes that to get ahead in a racist system requires working twice as hard; Thomas doesn’t ...more
Dec 15, 2019 rated it liked it
It's incredibly hard to separate the frustration of reading about Thomas and his place in American history (which I find unambiguously villainous) from an evaluation of this book. That said, I think Robin proves his expertise on the subject matter while writing an ineffective book.

The effort to lay out Thomas's philosophies in a non-judgmental way--except for when Robin feels that his own judgment needs to be inserted into the conversation--feels fundamentally flawed. So even though I do think
Nov 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: politics, law, nonfiction
Persuasive. Advances a potentially controversial thesis that Thomas has a coherent body of legal thought rooted not in some kind of constitutional "originalism" but rather a conservative strand of black nationalism. A lot of this has been hiding in plain sight- I could have talked to you about this view on guns already- but I still learned a lot and found the arguments here rigorous.

I'm less enamored with the attempts to tie his thought to particular details of his life, especially towards the
Keith Zubot-Gephart
Jan 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
A well-written and interesting book, illuminating a pivotal yet rather underexposed supreme court justice.

I do wish it had delved more into Anita Hill, however; I was left feeling quite informed about Thomas on every aspect of his politics and life *except* her, and particularly with how salient her story is to American law and politics (after all, Joe Biden is currently the frontrunner in the Democratic primary race as I write this), I keenly felt this lack. Otherwise, though, not much more to
Dan Cotter
Feb 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book takes a look at Clarence Thomas and tries to explain him. He does an admirable job, using speeches, writings and decisions of Thomas to support his points. He lays it out objectively. Robin focuses on three areas- 1) race, 2) capitalism, and 3) the Constitution. As Thomas emerges as the leader of the Court, this book is timely and provides great insights. At the end, Thomas does remain largely an enigma.
Judy G
Nov 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
I have been thinking what to write as a review as I am certain to be attacked by readers who support Clarence Thomas and his Conservative beliefs and his agenda which appears to be in support of african american men.
So I will say that the author who is a white man and not a Conservative has done extensive research for this book and he writes well

Judy g
Dec 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A phenomenal look into the thought process and politics of Clarence Thomas. His strange blend of conservatism and black nationalism is worth understanding in order to help develop a politics that can counter it. Robin does it again. Highly recommend.
Adam Omelianchuk
Jan 06, 2020 rated it liked it
An interesting and original interpretation of perhaps the most puzzling Justice on the SCOTUS; thought at times overstated and implausible, the idea that Thomas is a kind of "black nationalist" who is pessimistic about race relations in America makes a great deal of sense.
Nov 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
It’s not perfect. I’m not sure a white author’s analysis of a black jurist ever could be. But it’s an important and timely book that doesn’t shy away from critiquing Thomas while still managing to take him seriously. Overall, of the three books I’ve read by Robin so far, this is my favorite.
John Back
Feb 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book shook me up in several ways, none of which I feel like explaining to you. Suffice to say this book will haunt liberals and thrill conservatives.
Dec 20, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: didn-t-finish
The audio book expired before I finished, so my rating is a 'so far.' I'm not sure that will change, but will try to get it finished and reconsider.
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