Why couldn’t Clarence Thomas get a job with a big-city law firm when he graduated from Yale in 1974? It’s not an idle question. That “time of dashed hopes and expectations,” as Thomas once described it in a speech, still leaves him bitter. His frustration resonates in the autobiography that he published last fall, “My Grandfather’s Son.”
Thomas blames Yale Law School — specifically, its affirmative action program, which sought to give up to 10 percent of first-year spots to minorities — for his difficulties securing a job as a first-year associate. Thomas has not disclosed the firms to which he applied, or how many, but he says that after applying for jobs at firms in four different cities, he was rejected everywhere.
“I’d learned the hard way that a law degree from Yale meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks, no matter how much anyone denied it,” Thomas writes in his memoir. “I’d graduated from one of America’s top law schools, but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value.” To this day, he has kept a “15 cents” sticker from a cigar package stuck to his diploma, “to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale.”
Shortly after he arrived at the law school, Thomas writes, he realized that “blacks who benefited from [affirmative action admissions] were being judged by a double standard.” As a result, Thomas writes, his law degree was basically worthless, since it “bore the taint of racial preference.”
But interviews with a dozen black lawyers who attended Yale in the same years paint a strikingly different picture. “I don’t want to discredit Clarence’s viewpoint. But his focus on Yale is somewhat disingenuous,” says classmate David Jones (Yale Law School 1974), voicing a common theme among those interviewed. “And to make [affirmative action] out to be some kind of liberal conspiracy is certainly disingenuous.”
Jones says that Yale “could have done better” administering its affirmative action program in those early years, but any suggestion that black students were treated differently is “crap.” In fact, those interviewed describe the environment at Yale in largely positive — even glowing — terms. “It was a terrific education,” says Wendy Samuel (YLS 1974). “There wasn’t the heavy competition you’d expect from a school of its caliber. People were very supportive.”
As for Thomas’ argument that Yale’s affirmative action program made his law degree worthless? “Bullshit,” says Daniel Johnson, Jr., a partner at the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and a 1973 graduate of the school. “I know [African-American law students at Yale] who got job offers all over the country.”
Among those interviewed for this story, some got their top pick, and others didn’t, but all of them got a job in the sector — public, private or public interest — of their choice. His classmates suggest that a variety of factors might have played into Thomas’ search process, including grades, expectations, background and experience, as well as racism. Only Thomas has blamed affirmative action.