Clarence Thomas suggested Monday that affirmative action was comparable to the Jim Crow segregation laws enacted in the American South in the 1880s and in place until the 1960s.
The conservative Supreme Court justice joined in a majority opinion Monday to defer ruling on the merits of the affirmative action case, instead sending it back down to a lower court for reconsideration.
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin centered on whether the University of Texas violated the constitutional rights of some white applicants when it used race as a factor in the admissions process.
In his opinion, Thomas said that the "worst forms" of racism have "always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities."
"Slaveholders argued that slavery was a 'positive good' that civilized blacks and elevated them in every dimension of life," he said. "Segregationists likewise defended segregation on the ground that it provided more leadership opportunities for blacks."
Thomas's comments were met with skepticism by some who pointed out the Supreme Court justice had himself benefitted from affirmative action. "Clarence Thomas is hilarious. I got mine but I'll make sure you don't get yours!" political commentator Roland Martin tweeted.
Though Thomas said he was admitted to Yale Law School in part because of affirmative action, he wrote in his memoir, "My Grandfather's Son, that the preferential treatment stigmatized him and was wrong.
"I was bitter toward the white bigots whom I held responsible for the unjust treatment of blacks," he wrote. "But even more bitter toward those ostensibly unprejudiced whites who pretended to side with black people while using them to further their own political and social ends."
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the civil rights group the National Urban League, says he has stopped commenting on Thomas's opinions because he no longer expects them to change.
"I don't expect Clarence Thomas to ever support affirmative action even though he was the beneficiary of affirmative action," said Morial. "But this case is not over. The good news is that the case did not overrule the compelling necessity of diversity in college admissions. And so I hope we're going to see this case again in the Supreme Court in two or three years."