Indiana University/Maurer School of Law and Reuters/Jason Reed
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and law professor Kevin Brown are both black graduates of Yale Law School during the affirmative action era.
Yet while Thomas's experienced at Yale turned him against race-based preferences, Brown's time made him a supporter of the program.
Now a professor at the Indiana University Mauer School of Law, Brown says he struggles to understand Thomas's opinion.
"I've thought about this a tremendous amount, and I've tried to figure out how he could have arrived at his opinions," he says.
Brown speculates that Thomas may worry that affirmative action makes whites feel like victims.
"I would love to have this conversation with him," Brown tells us. "I would say, 'I don't believe whites would [think] that. I have more faith and trust in them than that.'"
Brown has an unusual perspective on affirmative action. In the late 1970s, he started out at Indiana University Law School, which didn't have affirmative action at the time. There were roughly three black students out of 200. The only black employee at the law school was a low-level library worker.
The school didn't seem to value his perspective as a black American, he says. One of his law school classes there once discussed a case in which a police officer was trying to enter the home of a black family living in a white area. Was the black home owner right to feel threatened and defend himself against the officer?
Of course the homeowner should have felt threatened, Brown told the class — as a young black man, he didn't view police as his friends.
But the professor told him he was wrong.
The attitude at the school amounted to "we'll take you, but we don't really want your race," Brown says.
So he transferred to Yale Law, which had a robust affirmative action program. Yale also had a black dean of admissions and prominent black law professors. Students debated race in the classroom, taking the time to examine the racist undertones of the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Brown, who graduated law school in 1982, felt Yale welcomed him because of his race.
Thomas finished law school in 1974 and came away with a different impression. He felt his peers only thought he was there because he'd benefitted from affirmative action.
“At least southerners were up front about their bigotry: You knew exactly where they were coming from,” Thomas writes in his memoir. “Not so the paternalistic big-city whites who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place.”
Many legal experts believe Thomas will vote to strike down the University of Texas's affirmative action program, which was challenged in the high court this term, because he is disillusioned with race-based preferences.
Thomas graduated from Yale Law eight years before Brown did, so it's possible attitudes about affirmative action changed before Brown attended the prestigious school.
Brown's own attitude on affirmative action has changed during the years. While he still supports affirmative action, Brown says race-based preferences have been excluding "traditional blacks" who have two U.S.-born black parents and tend to have lower incomes than black immigrants.
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