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The U.S. Supreme Court began a new term Monday in which it will make decisions on race and affirmative action that could affect mightily the state of race relations in America.

The thorniest of several highly controversial cases before the court involves the Piscataway, New Jersey, school board, which, in order to reduce by one the high school faculty, retained the lone black teacher and let go a white teacher of equal ability and seniority.

A lower federal court ruled that this "race-conscious" decision violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This court interpreted that statute to forbid all race-conscious acts and employment, except to remedy previous discrimination. The Piscataway school board has appealed, but some fear that this increasingly conservative Supreme Court not only will uphold the lower court but will decide that race-conscious decisions in employment are unconstitutional under all circumstances.

While much of America focuses on whether Sandra Day O'Connor will be the "swing" vote in this critical case, black America is intensely worried about the role of Clarence Thomas, the archconservative who is the lone black member.

Much of the discussion in black America is about how Thomas has become George Bush's curse on both the court and the civil rights movement. One of Bush's aides once told me that Bush was hurt and angry that black voters would not support him in great numbers. The aide said that Bush chose Thomas for the Supreme Court to spite blacks, and that he once said: "They'll never like me, but they won't forget me."

At least half of that statement is certainly true.

Thomas remains a pariah throughout black America, except for a tiny slice of black conservatives. Blacks see Thomas doing more than anyone else to make their once great benefactor -- the Supreme Court -- their enemy, and a destroyer of the civil rights movement.

It isn't just Thomas's right-wing voting that dismays blacks and other workers for racial and social justice. It is the influence they see Thomas wielding on moderate members of the court.

The late Thurgood Marshall, the first black member of the Supreme Court, pricked the consciences of all the justices, exhorting them to understand that many actions based on race were still necessary to achieve justice because the United States is not remotely close to becoming a color-blind society.

Thomas, however, is seen as encouraging other justices to be cruelly insensitive on matters of race and other social issues. Consciously and subconsciously, some of the eight white justices must say, "Why should I jump ahead of my black colleague (Thomas) in protecting minorities? I can't pretend to be blacker than he is." Thus, this Supreme Court now sermonizes over the virtual death of the civil rights movement.

If George Bush wanted revenge in naming Thomas to the high court, he is getting it in tragic portions.

North America Syndicate

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