What Did Clarence Thomas Actually Say About Whether African-Americans Were Part of “We the People” at the Time of the Founding?

In this recent post, I took issue with Justice Clarence Thomas’ apparent recent statement that African-Americans were not considered part of the “we the People” referred to in the Preamble of the Constitution. In conveying what Thomas said, I relied on a report in the Washington Post, which was echoed by many other media sources.

However, the video of Thomas’ dialogue with Yale law professor Akhil Amar and a transcript of his remarks obtained by VC reader Andrew Hyman suggests that his remarks were a lot more ambiguous. Here’s the relevant part of the transcript (which occurs roughly between 8:00 and 12:00 of the video):

AKHIL AMAR: …I guess I’d like to start our conversation — it seems fitting — with those — with the words that the Constitution starts with, “we the people,” and how that — what that phrase means to you, how that phrase maybe has changed over time thanks to amendments and other developments.

What do you mean — who are “we”? You know, who is this “we”? When did — when did folks like you and me become part of this “we”?… [Note: Akhil Amar is an Indian-American]

JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS: Well, you — the — well, obviously, it didn’t — it wasn’t perfect. That’s an understatement. But you grow up in an environment, at least I was fortunate enough to, where we believed that it was perfectible….

So when I think of we the people, there is a lot, I think, of the exclusion but the possibility and then the eventuality of the inclusion of you and me. I mean, look at — no one cares that, what, 40 years ago, you and I would not be sitting here talking about the Constitution of the United States except to say we’re excluded.

The last part of Thomas’ statement – that the inclusion of nonwhites was only an eventual “possibility” could be interpreted to mean that originally they were categorically excluded. But the statement is much more equivocal than the Washington Post’s summary, which stated that “Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged the other night, that the “we the people” extolled in the Constitution 225 years ago did not include people who looked like him.” I think the Post’s interpretation of his remarks is plausible. But it’s also plausible to suggest that he meant that blacks, while not completely excluded at the Founding, were still subject to horrendous discrimination and only fully included as equal citizens many decades later.

I am grateful to Mr. Hyman for bringing this issue to my attention and for obtaining the transcript.

Some commenters and others have asked whether the distinction between categorical exclusion on the basis of race at the time of the Founding and “mere” extensive discrimination actually matters.

As I noted in my original post, the issue has great historical significance because it was one of the main points of disagreement over the Dred Scott decision. If at least some blacks were part of “We the People” at the time of the Founding, Chief Justice Taney’s notorious majority opinion is wrong, for reasons well captured in Justice Curtis’ dissent.

But the issue also has some relevance to modern debates over the legitimacy of originalism. Some critics of originalism have argued that the original Constitution was illegitimate because it excluded blacks. There is little doubt that the original Constitution tolerated severe racial injustices, most notably slavery. But there is nonetheless a difference between a Constitution that left slavery and other injustices alone (in part because abolition was politically impossible at the time), and one that categorically denied all blacks any “rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as Taney put it.

Obviously, one can reject originalism for a variety of reasons even if Taney’s claim was wrong. And it is possible to endorse originalism even if he was right. But the case against originalism does become stronger at the margin if Taney was right, and weaker if he was wrong.

UPDATE: I should note that when I say abolition of slavery was “politically impossible” at the time of the Founding, I mean nationwide abolition. Abolition in the northern states was not only possible but actually beginning to happen.

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