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The Enigma of Clarence Thomas

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  284 ratings  ·  59 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 t
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
Jun 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As I suspect is the case with most people, before reading this book the bulk of my knowledge about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas consisted of the fact that he is a conservative, he was accused of sexual harassment at his confirmation, and that he never speaks during Supreme Court hearings. Donald Trump also recently called him “his favorite Supreme Court judge”, which on its face seems to suggest what kind of craven, self-loathing individual he must be. As it turns out, this picture is n ...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 i ...more
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 ultimate ...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, extr ...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 o ...more
May 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Corey Robin unmasks the mystery of one of the most polarising supreme court judges, and in doing so, unearths America's complicated race problem. Robin is astute and meticulous in his documentation and reading of Thomas. However, a more detailed outline of the infamous sexual harassment case with Anita Hill would have been helpful, especially for someone for readers who weren't old enough to see it on TV, and folks outside of America who aren't so hip to the situation. ...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 r
Sharad Pandian
Nov 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: race, politics, 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
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 the
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
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 t ...more
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. ...more
Humza Hussain
Jul 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
"The victim of racial stigmas profiled by the police but the ambitious black striver condescended to by liberal whites. The victim he has in mind is someone like him."

"Thomas' conservative black nationalist jurisprudence is to limit the involvement of black people with the white state, to persuade black people to give up their illusion that politics can positively affect their condition and perhaps to abandon politics altogether."

"Thomas seems to suggest the presence of an almost imperturbable s
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 wi ...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 hi ...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
Paul Scott
Dec 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I WOULD NOT have picked up a book about Clarence Thomas were it not by Corey Robin, whose The Reactionary Mind impressed me. Enigma? Really? I found Anita Hill credible, for one thing, and for another I had (lazily) assumed that Thomas was just a follower of Scalia's lead. He's famous for not asking questions, after all. Classic sellout, I figured. What's enigmatic about that? But Robin puts Thomas in a whole new light.

According to Robin, Thomas is actually a hard-core black nationalist, perhaps
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 par ...more
Aug 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
An Origin Story: The Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas

This was a difficult book for me to read on two levels: (1) the legal and philosophical detail of Thomas' opinions were difficult to follow but well worth it, (2) the wincing irony that a Black justice, with a Black Nationalist sentiments, is causing just as much hurt to the minority community as the most insidious White Nationalist.

Corey Robin shapes the psychological roots of Thomas' jurisprudence. He was abandoned by his father in the deep
Scott Stahl
Sep 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Who is Clarence Thomas? If you're like me and came to political awakening from a left-liberal lens and not knowing anything about the man aside from what you see on TV or read in the news, you might think he's some combination of a conservative stooge, Scalia's puppet, a sexual harasser, maybe you'd even dare to call him a race traitor. Corey Robin, a leftist, goes to great lengths to take seriously this powerful Supreme Court Justice and, through his analysis, recasts our collective image of th ...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 -- lib ...more
Nov 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating examination of right-wing black nationalism as it relates to the legal opinions and ideology of Justice Clarence Thomas. While the book is written by a leftist journalist and scholar, it offers an objective presentation of many of Thomas' views and how he formed them. As he states will be the case early on, Robin rarely presents objections to Thomas' views, but rather leaves the interpretation and formation of responses up to the reader. This is easy to do when presented with the sta ...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 plac ...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 se ...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 e
Mike Goldstein
Jun 24, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I learned a lot from this book. I came into it knowing very little about Clarence Thomas or about judicial history overall, but the author does a really good job of basing his analysis in clear explanations of the relevant facts and theories. It was fascinating to read a fleshed out exploration of a thinker that is commonly cast off as an anomaly, which I think is the core mission of this book. It was also helpful to read an entirely different approach to the realities of systemic racism than th ...more
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Corey Robin is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College.

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