GOP Race Mongering on Sotomayor

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The Boston Globe

GOP Race Mongering on Sotomayor

The Republicans are still frozen in fight-or-flight at the precipice of race. President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has leading members of the GOP peering down, looking nervously at each other, deciding whether they should follow Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, and their audiences into the abyss, or whether any of them will spread their arms in a blocking motion to slowly move everyone back to political sanity.

Hard-line Republicans and radio right-wingers think they have a disqualifying "gotcha" on Sotomayor's 2001 statement that a "wise Latina woman" can make "better" legal decisions than a "white male who hasn't lived that life." Sure, Sotomayor could have skipped "wise" and "better." She could have said that any member of any group that historically suffered discrimination or poverty might view certain cases through a different lens than people who experienced neither bias nor want. Dare we say empathy?

Obama, while saying Sotomayor on further reflection might have restated the remark, said, "If you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through that will make her a good judge."

But let's not confuse things with the entire sweep of context, especially when it comes to a Republican Party that has been the party of racial code words ever since Nixon's Southern Strategy for white males, Reagan's "state's rights" speech in Mississippi, and President George W. Bush's siding with white students against affirmative action in the University of Michigan Supreme Court case. Never mind that in American History 101 you can remind yourself that America lived 76 years with slavery after the adoption of the Constitution, 133 years before white women received the right to vote, 177 years and 178 years before the racial civil rights and voting acts, and 203 years before the Americans With Disabilities Act. We are currently debating if gay and lesbian people are full citizens under the law. Could it be because too many courts historically contained too few people who lived the lives of others?

Context is a canard for Limbaugh, who compared Sotomayor to former Klan leader and Republican politician David Duke. Gingrich called her a "Latina woman racist." Buchanan called Sotomayor, a graduate of Princeton and Yale law school and an appointee of GOP President George H.W. Bush, a . . . duh! . . . affirmative-action baby!

The question is, how far will Republicans let such race mongering go to further ruin their "brand," at a time when recent polling shows an unprecedented majority of African-Americans and white Americans both saying race relations are generally good? A May Gallup poll found that since 2001, the Republicans have turned an eight-point advantage in party identification into a five-point deficit. Most striking are the Republican losses among college graduates, turning a one-point advantage (47 percent to 46 percent) into a 15-point deficit (52-37).

So far, no top Republican on Capitol Hill has repudiated the attacks based on race. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said, "I've got better things to do than be the speech police." The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions, merely said he would not have used Limbaugh's or Gingrich's "loaded words," but when asked directly on NBC if he thought Sotomayor was a racist, Sessions said, "I think that she is a person who believes that her background can influence her decision. That's what troubles me."

Hmmm. Would Barack Obama be president had he stuck to having better things to do than be the speech police on Jeremiah Wright?

Most indications are that Sotomayor will ultimately be confirmed, given that moderate Republicans like Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins voted for her elevation to the federal appeals bench in 1998. It would be better still if the likes of Snowe and Collins and fellow Republicans with the least bit of courage called a press conference to condemn the race trashing of Sotomayor. The more they stay silent, the more they might as well leap off the precipice.

Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe and can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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