Justice Thomas starts off his Grutter dissent with this quote from a Frederick Douglass speech.
In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us . . . . I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! . . . And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! . . . Your interference is doing him positive injury.
Here, Thomas appropriates these words of a venerable leader to argue that he, like Douglass, opposes affirmative action in higher education.
There are a few problems.
First, Douglass was a great champion of the Freedman’s Bureau Act which actually did help black people on the basis of race in various ways, most successfully in building schools for freedmen. But that’s a relatively small problem.
A bigger problem is that Thomas leaves out this crucial portion of the quote:
Let him alone. If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot box, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone, -- your interference is doing him positive injury.
That is, Douglass was not telling whites not to assist blacks, but instead not to harm them. Douglass, a well-read and intelligent man, understood the zeitgeist of his time. Something akin to affirmative action in higher education was not on the table in 1865, the year the speech was made. The white masses were not itching to redistribute the benefits of American democracy. It’s nonsensical, then, to argue that Douglass was imploring whites to not enact policies similar to that of University of Michigan when whites of that era never were predisposed to do as such. Who argues against a position that no one is taking? Rather, Douglass appreciated that whites, particularly in the South, were willing to disfranchise, discriminate against, threaten and even kill scores of blacks to maintain white supremacy.
The biggest problem , however, is that Douglass mentions the sort of policies that he deemed to be causing blacks “positive injury,” former Massachusetts Governor General Nathaniel Banks’ black labor policy. Once Gen. Banks assumed control of Louisiana he instituted a black labor policy in January of 1863. According to the plan, “Blacks, unless they had a job in town, must work on a plantation. They could choose their own employers but were required to sign a contract and work for one year with whomever they signed.... Other benefits included rations, medical treatment, schooling for their children, quarters, fuel, and a garden plot of at least one acre. Furthermore, the regulations outlawed physical abuse of any kind and established the work period as dawn to dusk." Banks’ policy was instituted as some sort of paternalistic effort to prepare ex-slaves for freedom. The plan, in other words, was implemented with supposedly beneficial purposes for blacks. It is completely unreasonable to compare the Banks plan to University of Michigan’s admissions policies.
My problem with Thomas’ citing of Douglass is that it’s completely ahistorical and perhaps disingenuous. If Thomas thinks that affirmative action is a bad idea, that’s fine. But don’t take a quote completely out of its historical context, exclude important parts of that quote, and distort the memory of a man who can no longer speak for himself. What was done here is almost as bad as those conservatives who similarly turn Martin Luther King Jr. into some anti-affirmative action superhero.