MAXWELL:  A role model nonetheless

2/16/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When National Basketball Association superstar Charles Barkley said awhile back that he is not a role model for African-American children, many black leaders were astonished. Then, more recently, Antigua-born black author Jamaica Kincaid said that she is a reluctant role model for black children and expressed skepticism that role models are important for black children or that role models have any real value.

Given such sentiments from respectable blacks _ against the backdrop of other entertainment giants who are not worth emulating _ and in light of the crises facing many cities, one would think that blacks would be looking for solid role models anywhere they can find them.

Not so. Most African-Americans want their role models to fit a specific political profile and earn the blessings of a handful of select leaders. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman are examples of acceptable role models.

But what about the likes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? Why do so many blacks reject him as a role model for their children?

This question interests me because I established Role Models Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization designed to help create future generations of black youngsters who reject the culture of the victim. The foundation wants them to know that they can shape their own fates by working hard and by emulating success.

Supporters have asked me if I would “dare invite” Thomas to speak to the black children in the foundation. My response requires a full explanation. A recent Wall Street Journal article titled, Black Leaders Try to Deny Thomas Status as Role Model, outlines Thomas’ enigmatic place in black life and introduces Benjamin Carson, a well-known black surgeon, who wanted to invite Thomas to speak to participants in a weeklong “Festival for Youth” program in Delaware.

Having known Thomas as a fellow member of the Horatio Alger Society, Carson admires the judge for his rise from abject poverty in rural Georgia to a seat on the nation’s highest court. He believed that a message from a black man who overcame such odds would inspire the children for a lifetime.

But leaders of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People threatened to picket if Thomas spoke. For the second time in less than a year, Thomas stayed home and did not speak to a group of black children. Months earlier, a School Board member and parents in a Maryland school district warned of a boycott if Thomas spoke at a middle school awards ceremony.

Thomas also has been excoriated in the black press, especially on the cover of Emerge magazine, where he has been portrayed as an “artificial nigger” in a yard and as a pathetic figure wearing an Aunt Jemima head rag.

Why such virulent hatred of this successful man? The Anita Hill sexual harassment controversy aside, Thomas is despised because of his conservatism _ his philosophical opposition to policies such as affirmative action and black voting districts and his support of curbing school desegregation.

Indeed, most blacks believe that Thomas, albeit holding the same views that generations of whites have held, has betrayed his race and does not deserve the status of a role model. I disagree, even though I oppose many of Thomas’ judicial decisions. One acquaintance said that she rejects Thomas because of “how” he succeeded, arguing that he ” “Uncle Tomed’ his way to the top. He sold his soul to white people, and he sold out his own people. He’s still selling out.”

Most blacks share her opinion. But who is a sellout? To sell out is to say or do things one really does not believe in order to gain prestige or wealth. Although Thomas denies that his career benefited from affirmative action, I do not believe that he is a sellout. A well-read and thoughtful person, he believes what he says, and his conscience dictates his actions. He is a proponent of “natural law,” his views having roots in the writings of 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas and ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle.

Moreover, Thomas cut his political teeth among conservatives, his greatest benefactors being former Republican Sen. John C. Danforth and ex-President George Bush.

For me, Thomas is a flawed role model, but a role model nonetheless. As a U.S. Supreme Court justice, he deserves respect. And many in the civil rights establishment, including NAACP National President Kweisi Mfume, have reached the same conclusion.

Even Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor who represented Anita Hill during those infamous confirmation hearings, said that Thomas is a role model because the judge’s individual accomplishments prove “that you can come up from poverty and have a huge impact in our society.”

Absolutely. And, yes, I will try to get Thomas to speak to the young people affiliated with Role Models Foundation. I agree with Thomas’ friend, Dr. Carson, who told the Wall Street Journal that the worst role models for black children are “silly adults” who “put people into corners and castigate them” for having independent views.

Black children deserve better from black adults.