Two things can be true at once: America has made great progress in race relations, but there is still a ways to go.  Racial discrimination exists in America, but our nation is not systemically discriminatory.  There are stories of pain, but also stories of racial progress in America.  Both need to be acknowledged.

The recent documentary, “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” portrays the personal story of resilience and accomplishment of United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Thomas ascended to the Supreme Court in 1991 and became only the second African American Supreme Court justice in history, replacing Justice Thurgood Marshall (the first).  His story is a story of American progress.

Clarence Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia, and as a young boy lived in poverty. He was so poor he had never been in a house with a bathtub until he was an older child. Thomas’s life took a dramatic turn when he and his brother were taken in by his grandparents, who raised the boys in Savannah. 

His grandparents believed in hard work from “sun to sun.”  Thomas worked in the fields, helped with chores, drove with his grandfather on his oil delivery route every day after school, and was expected to persevere.  “Old Man Can’t has died, I helped bury him,” was the refrain Thomas heard repeatedly from his grandfather, and one he took to heart.

Thomas attended parochial school and then later entered a pre-seminary Catholic boarding school as the only black student on campus. Because of the racism that Thomas experienced there, he eventually left the seminary.  Nevertheless, Thomas continued his education, attending The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.  He excelled academically and was accepted to the Yale Law School.  At that time in his life, Thomas leaned left.

His post-law school career transformed his thinking, and by 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court, he was a well-known conservative jurist. Clarence Thomas was not your “typical” black nominee, due to his conservative leanings and those on the left quickly mobilized to discredit him.  

His former colleague, Anita Hill, accused him of sexual harassment (after the hearings had concluded) and the partisan battle lines were drawn. Throughout the ordeal, Thomas vehemently denied the sexual harassment allegations and never backed away from his legal philosophy or his deeply held principles.   

He chastised the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings (led by then Chairman Joe Biden) when he said, “As a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.” 

With that statement, Justice Thomas called out the identity politics consistently used by the left and won confirmation to the Supreme Court. That moment in history also gave rise to new voices and organizations willing to fight for individual expression of thought. 

Organizations like Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) grew out of the ordeal standing up for Clarence Thomas and against the notion that some women anointed by the media, speak for all women.  Women have divergent views and don’t think alike simply due to our gender.  Our country needed those different perspectives in 1991, and we need them as much today.

Justice Clarence Thomas has served on the Supreme Court for almost thirty years.  His success exemplifies tenacity, resilience, and the importance of education, faith, and an inner strength to believe differently from what is expected.  His story is an example of both pain and progress in America.

When George Floyd was killed over Memorial Day weekend, all Americans were reminded of the heartbreaking pain of racial unfairness and disparate treatment.   In order to continue a productive discussion, we need to recognize people’s pain and be certain we use it to make real progress. 

In the words of Justice Thomas, “[t]oday, now, it is time to move forward, a time to look for what is good in others, what is good in our country. It is time to see what we have in common, what we have to share as human beings and citizens.”

Andrea G. Bottner is Senior Advisor to Independent Women’s Forum, Founder of Bottner Strategies and former Acting Director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women (OVW).