As a child in the 1950s, Clarence Thomas wore the ragged hand-me-downs familiar to many a poor black child in the segregated South. In the early 1960s, as the first black ever enrolled at St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, in Savannah, Georgia, he wore plain, neatly pressed shirts and slacks, along with an expression that bespoke a painful shyness. The goatee, the black leather jacket, and the solidarity with Malcolm X came at Holy Cross College, in Massachusetts, during the late 1960s. Yale Law School and corporate legal work in the 1970s finally brought Thomas a measure of real status and affluence. Now thirty-eight, and the chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Clarence Thomas dresses in dark, elegant, conservative business suits. He earns $71,000 a year and, when he is not being chauffered in a government car, drives a Camaro IROC-Z. The desk in his Washington office is an impressive structure of polished oak. Behind his leather chair stand two flags, one the Stars and Stripes and the other bearing the legend "Don't Tread on Me." It is an apt motto for the head of an agency charged with ensuring that discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, or national origin does not occur in the workplace, and that should it occur, appropriate steps are taken to seek redress.
The leaders of many civil-rights and women's groups wonder how seriously Clarence Thomas takes that motto. Indeed, some of them loathe Thomas. He is, after all, a member of the Reagan Administration—its second-highest-ranking black. He is the top federal official charged with curbing discrimination in the private sector. Every American company with more than fifteen employees must adhere to guidelines set by the EEOC on how to train, hire, and promote women, minorities, the elderly, and the handicapped. Thomas not only shapes and enforces those guidelines but helps to define Reagan Administration policies with respect to black America generally, policies that most blacks and white liberals abhor. Hodding Carter III, an official in the Carter Administration and now a syndicated columnist, recently characterized Thomas's performance as similar to that of the "'chicken-eating preachers' who gladly parroted the segregationists' line in exchange for a few crumbs from the white man's table."