In 1980, 32-year-old Clarence Thomas was a no-name aide to a Republican senator.
At a conference for Black conservatives, he complained to a journalist about his sister being on welfare.
The journalist, Juan Williams, wrote a column about it that caught the attention of Reagan's team.
Long before Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made headlines for his financial dealings, he made the news for an entirely different reason — complaining to a journalist about his sister being on welfare.
The story is recounted in a new episode of the WNYC podcast "More Perfect," which focuses on the Supreme Court and its influential rulings. The latest episode, released Thursday, is all about Thomas, telling the story of how he went from a Malcolm X-admiring revolutionary to arguably the most conservative justice on the high court.
In 1980, 32-year-old Thomas was working as an aide to Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, primarily working on issues like energy and the environment, according to a 1987 profile published in The Atlantic and written by Juan Williams, now a Fox News analyst.
In December of that year, about a month before Ronald Reagan was to be sworn in as president, Thomas paid his own way to attend a conference of Black conservatives in San Francisco. After Reagan sailed to victory in the election with little support from Black voters, Black conservatives were increasingly being discussed in the media, Williams wrote in The Atlantic.
Thomas, a Reagan supporter, was not well known. But at the conference, he stuck out to Williams, who at the time was an editorial writer for The Washington Post.
"Thomas was the most interesting of a very self-important crowd because he was so brutally candid," Williams wrote in The Atlantic, adding that Thomas explained his stance on welfare — and his opposition to public assistance — was in part due to his sister in Georgia.
"She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check," Thomas said, according to Williams. "That is how dependent she is. What's worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation."
Such sentiments are not uncommon today in arguments about welfare programs, but Thomas's remarks and the mention of his sister caused quite a stir, Williams recounted on the "More Perfect" podcast. His comments were also in line with Reagan's own campaign tirades against the welfare system and "welfare queens" — in which he used individual examples of welfare fraud to paint it as a rampant issue. In reality, there's little evidence indicating there's widespread fraud in entitlement programs.
Williams ended up writing a column about the conference that largely focused on Thomas and his remarks.
"He had never been subject to that kind of media spotlight," Williams said of Thomas. "The response from most readers of The Washington Post was, 'Wow, this guy's out of his mind. Why is he bringing up his sister? Why is he putting her in that ugly public position?'"
While Thomas's comments outraged liberals, they also caught the attention of President-elect Reagan's team. In May of 1981, Thomas joined the Reagan White House as the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education. He went on to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982 to 1990. And in 1991, President George H. W. Bush appointed him to the lifetime position of Supreme Court justice.
Reagan ended up making massive cuts to welfare programs and allowing states to institute work requirements for welfare recipients.
Despite the chain of events that followed, Thomas was unhappy with the column, and especially with the public response, Williams said, adding that it took six months before Thomas would talk to him again. When the pair finally met up for lunch, Thomas acted like Williams had hurt him.
"I'm like, 'But I just quoted you. Dude, this is what you told me.' And he keeps repeating the same stuff anyway," Williams said, adding their relationship got back on track after that.
Williams, who has said he considers Thomas a friend, recently called for an investigation into the justice's financial dealings in the wake of numerous media reports.
ProPublica first reported that Thomas had taken undisclosed, lavish vacations for years at the expense of GOP megadonor Harlan Crow. Subsequent reports revealed Thomas failed to disclose the sale of his childhood home to Crow, and that Crow paid for Thomas's grandnephew to attend a residential program for teens that cost $6,000 per month.
Thomas has denied any wrongdoing and said he believed the gifts fell under a "personal hospitality" exemption.
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