The People vs. Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas, the reticent and enigmatic Supreme Court Justice who for the near entirety of his 19 year term has barely spoken a public word in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court building.   Many may recall the disputed 2000 elections and the unforgettable legal drama that was unfolding within the courtroom.  It seemed almost too surreal to witness such a historical, Romanesque debate playing out on television to determine who would be the 43rd President of the United States.  

The enormity of the decision was so profound that the Court agreed to televise the debate, the first time it had done so in its’ history.   Each of the well tenured Justices, seated in their elevated perch, took turns weighing in on the salient aspects of the case and occasionally engaging in verbal tennis matches with opposing counsel.  All, except for Justice Thomas, who seemed to be incapable of mustering up an intelligent comment and simply resigned himself to spectator status, while his colleagues meted out the future of our country. 

Thomas, the only African-American Supreme Court Justice, failed to raise one single issue during the entire debate, leaving many to wonder about his capacity to serve as a Justice in the highest court of the land.   By refusing to engage in the proceedings, Thomas cast a curious cloud of doubt over himself, that has followed him throughout his tenure.    Perhaps, he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the decision?  Or maybe he had a major case of stage fright?  Whatever the truth may be, we expect our most exalted arbiters of justice to be capable stewards in the interpretation of the law, regardless of how daunting the task may be.  

Thomas unsurprisingly sided with the conservatives on the court, 5-4 and essentially handed George Bush the Presidency despite Al Gore having over 500,000 more popular votes and ignoring calls for a complete recount.   The political division within the court was also quite noteworthy; conservatives out numbering liberals in a decision that ostensibly favored a Republican candidate.   Thomas was nominated by George H. W. Bush in 1991, amidst a contentious and scandalous debate, involving characters like Anita Hill and unforgettable testimony like, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”, which sounds more like a cheesy line from a cheap porno, than a comment allegedly made by a Judge being considered for a lifetime role on the Supreme Court.

Despite Thomas’s conservative demeanor and questionable ethics, many African-Americans who were initially opposed to his nomination, began to have empathy for him as the public circus surrounding him, revealed an all too familiar theme among African-Americans with regard to constantly proving their credentials and defending their character.    The most confounding aspect of Thomas’s nomination was that he was clearly unprepared to be a Supreme Court Justice and was obviously being used as a token candidate by H.W. Bush in attempt to maintain diversity on the court, in the absence of the great Thurgood Marshall.

Clearly, H.W. Bush was motivated to replace Marshall’s minority presence on the court, but failed miserably in his offering of Thomas as a capable justice.   Replacing an icon like Thurgood Marshall would not be an easy task for any sitting President, considering Marshall’s iconic status as a civil rights pioneer.  However, the proposition of Thomas as a replacement for the first African-American justice is an affront to the legacy of Marshall and a sham that was perpetrated on all citizens.     

 Since assuming his role on the Supreme Court, Thomas has consistently voted in lock step with the conservative justices, gaining him a reputation as Antonin Scalia’s faithful lackey.   Thomas benefited from well established affirmative action initiatives in the 1970′s, allowing him to become head of the EEOC in 1982, and later an Associate Federal Judge, however, Thomas has consistently voted against measures that would reinforce civil rights and protect affirmative action initiatives.    He has cast the deciding vote to make it harder for blacks to prove they were victims of job discrimination and also voted against expanding voting rights for blacks and, in one case, disputed the history of using the 1964 Voting Rights Act to help elect more blacks in the South.   

Thurgood Marshall was a resounding force in the creation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and fought diligently for its passage and on occasion risked his life by traveling alone through parts of the South, to raise awareness of civil rights issues.  Thomas on the other hand, would seem to be content to overturn every piece of civil rights legislation that Marshall fought to implement.     

When Justice Thomas appeared at the University of North Carolina School of Law in 2002, the Black Law Students Association there staged a teach-in protest, and the five African-American law faculty members boycotted his appearances and issued a joint letter which stated in part: “We will not participate in any institutional gesture that honors and endorses what Justice Thomas does.”         

Clearly, Justice Thomas will not be remembered kindly in the annals of African-American history, his tenure on the Supreme Court will be regarded as a farce and an enduring insult to the legacy of Thurgood Marshall.     Furthermore, if the appointment of minorities such as Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor are an attempt to recognize diversity within our country and within our justice system, then African-Americans greatly deserve a much more suitable representative.

 Barrington D. Ross

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Cuba, America’s Sacred Cash Cow

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, the irascible and cunning, 84 year old leader of Cuba, has managed to maintain his stronghold over the vast island country since overthrowing the U.S. backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista in the winter of 1959.   Fidel and his lieutenant Che Guevara immediately transformed the U.S. friendly tourist destination, that was once a haven for American vacationers and an offshore Mecca for Mafia activity, into a communist led regime; nationalizing U.S. owned companies and their property in the process.

Despite frustrated attempts by President J.F. Kennedy and the CIA to assassinate him, he has survived 9 U.S. Presidents and continues to rule, albeit in a much less vociferous manner.    In 2006, following an intestinal surgery, Fidel seceded his powers as commander to his brother, Raul Castro, who was officially appointed President of Cuba in 2008.  However, even in poor health, Castro is still involved in the daily operations, and remains the internationally recognized voice of Cuba.

In an effort to neutralize Castro and his growing allegiance with the now defunct Soviet Union, the United States, implemented a strict embargo against the country in 1960, urging foreign countries to immediately cease shipping and trading with the communist country and forbidding Americans to travel to the country.   The impact of the embargo has severely impacted the people of Cuba, but  has greatly enriched it’s enigmatic leader.    In 2006, Forbes magazine estimated Castro’s net worth at $900 million, ranking him as one of the richest men in the world.  Castro is actually rumored to have 1.4 billion dollars securely tucked away in foreign banks, while his people struggle daily to meet their basic needs.

Dealing with the half century old Cuban embargo, seems to be a perpetual albatross that every President has inherited since JFK’s untimely demise.  Many have tried to bolster diplomatic relations with Cuba, only to find themselves being used by Castro as fodder for his once fiery communist rhetoric.    In 2003, the U.S. Senate drafted a bill that would reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba, and lift the travel restrictions, however, Bush threatened a veto of the bill, claiming that reopening relations with Cuba would only further enrich Castro.  

In 2001, the island of Cuba was hit by Hurricane Michelle, devastating their already fragile infrastructure.  The U.S. and many other countries responded with offers of aid, but Castro seizing an opportunity to further needle his longtime nemesis, insisted that he would not accept aid from America.   But apparently, after some back channel negotiations, he relented and placed restrictions on the type of aid that would be accepted, limiting American donations to medical supplies and medical services.  

This catastrophic event would actually be the unlikely catalyst that would quietly jumpstart trading between the two countries in almost 50 years.   Shortly after the Hurricane, Cuba, a country that typically imports 80% of their food supply, was in desperate need of food and supplies.  The U.S. realizing an opportunity to increase exports to Cuba, began to relax restrictions on American companies doing business there, although, with one very important caveat;  that Cuba must pay cash for all American goods sold there.   

Cuba is required to pay cash, because of their history of stiffing countries such as France, Chile, South Africa, Spain and Thailand on payments.  Requiring Cuba to pay with cash, is obviously a boon to U.S. companies that supply goods and services there, because there’s no need to worry about credit or payment.  

U.S. exports and commerce in Cuba have ballooned from just 6 million dollars a year in 2001, to almost 2 billion dollars a year in 2007, making the U.S. ; the largest food supplier of Cuba  and its fifth largest trading partner.   Seeking to protect their resurrected cash cow, the United States in 2006, announced the creation of a task force made up of officials from several US agencies that aggressively pursue violators of the US trade embargo against Cuba, with severe penalties.   The regulations are still in force and are administered by the U.S. Treasury Department, Office of Foreign Assets Control.    Criminal penalties for violating the embargo range up to ten years in prison, $1 million in corporate fines, and $250,000 in individual fines; civil penalties up to $55,000 per violation, according to Wikipedia.

As part of the increased effort to prevent foreign companies from trading with Cuba, the U.S. prevents foreign cargo ships from docking on U.S. territory for a period of 6 months if they’ve recently visited Cuba.   The U.S. also levies stiff penalties on airlines that ship products to Cuba via U.S. airports, further strangling off foreign competition and allowing the U.S. to monopolize trading with the still communist country.  

So why continue to enforce a superficial embargo on a country that currently generates about 2 billion dollars a year in cash payments for U.S. goods and services?   Part of the reason may have to do with ego, no President wants to see a victorious Fidel Castro, parading around on Cuban television, and mocking the U.S., while maintaining strong trade agreements.    Another factor is the influential Cuban ex-patriot community in South Florida, which continuously lobbies against lifting the embargo, despite the continued economic burden that it places on their relatives who still live on the island.   The U.S. also realizes that it can easily continue to monopolize trading with Cuba if it maintains the current embargo, by limiting the number of foreign companies that trade with Cuba.  

In April 2009, President Obama lifted travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, allowing them to travel freely to the island to visit their relatives.   Lifting the travel restrictions for all Americans may be the next step in dismantling an embargo that’s ironically served to enrich the surly and oppressive dictator, while impoverishing an entire nation of people, who continue to struggle with inadequate sanitation, poor diets and a lack of reliable public transportation.    But the easing of the ban, would put the U.S. in the precarious position of attempting to justify allowing Americans to travel to Cuba, but preventing foreign companies from trading there.

With the lifting of the ban, Cubans could expect Americans to once again flock to their country, bringing much need tourism revenue and expanded job creation to handle the influx of visitors.  Americans have always been intrigued and enchanted by Cuba, even more so because of its proximity and the aura surrounding restrictions on traveling there.   

No country’s future has ever been so closely associated with one man’s impending death than Cuba.  Many see Fidel’s eventual passing as a gateway to new beginnings in Cuba and an opportunity to shape their own destiny, free from his egotistical and oppressive regime.   

Barrington D.  Ross