Hile some conservatives focused on Sotomayor’s positions on gun rights and abortion, many seemed fi xated with her comments regarding race and ethnicity. Their opposition, which continued up to the moment of the 68-31 Senate vote last month, appeared to be based on the notion that her ethnic background precluded her from judicial objectivity.
This might have been a typical conservative outcry to a left-of-center court nominee, but many scholars say the fi ght over Sotomayor is indicative of a larger struggle over the politics of identity. They say the Sotomayor nomination, on the heels of the election of the country’s fi rst Black president, appears to be an attempt by White conservatives to control the discourse on race and ethnicity.
Dr. Ronald Jackson, associate dean in the College of Media and chair of the African- American Studies department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says some of the GOP senators who opposed Sotomayor’s nomination backed her appointment as a federal judge under President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Jackson says those same lawmakers might have felt pressure from conservative constituents wary of nominating a Latina to the nation’s highest court.
“It could be argued that people are nervous,” says Jackson, whose research has focused on the construction of Whiteness. “The whole confi rmation turned into a spectacle.”
Media coverage of the comments and discussions didn’t place histories of race and issues such as affi rmative action into proper context, University of Minnesota journalism professor Dr. Catherine Squires says.
“There are too few journalists who understand the history being framed,” she says. As a result, “there is a very tangled network of problems that makes it very easy for [political commentator] Glenn Beck to say Obama hates all White people and that there is reverse racism.”
Beck’s comments â€” which he directed at Obama following his intervention in an alleged racial profi ling case involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. â€” were repudiated by other conservatives, but they fell in line with claims by such right-wing commentators as Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, who considered the Sotomayor nomination as a direct attack on Whites. Limbaugh, for one, asserted that Sotomayor “brings a form of bigotry and racism to the court. … And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That’s what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive.”
Squires, whose research has focused on public spheres and mediated discourses on race and gender, says the backlash against Sotomayor can be traced back to the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. The culture wars included attacks on welfare recipients and affi rmative action using racially coded terms such as “welfare queens” and “quotas” in order to create White resentment toward a more multicultural country.
Moreover, she says, media coverage in recent years has included conservatives of color who have been strategically positioned to argue against diversity. “You have this really terrible paradox of people using their race to debunk the idea that race matters,” Squires says. “On the other side, you have Whites saying, ‘We have lost our meritocracy.’ Sotomayor’s nomination brings White victimhood into the frame.”
Political discourse has always included an element of race, though it has been largely coded since the GOP unleashed its Southern strategy to capture disaffected White Democrats. The backlash against affi rmative action and crusades against political correctness in the 1990s stemmed from a perception by many White conservatives â€” and some moderates â€” that the country’s changing demography shifted power away from those who have long held it.
But Jackson says Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment and White conservatives’ opposition to it implies that only Whites can be objective, whereas minorities always display partiality to those in their community.
“What’s interesting in their claim is that, because you look a certain way, all your decisions would sway toward people who look like you,” he says. “If that logic follows through, all White folks will only vote favorably or make decisions on behalf of them.”
Obama’s election might have been a precursor to a new wave of backlash. During his campaign last year, the president was categorized as a Black radical by opponents because of his longtime association with the outspoken Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Similarly, conservative ads that ran during the Sotomayor nomination focused on her involvement with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, depicting her as an extremist and tying her to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers.
Dr. Miguel Centellas, who teaches political science at the University of Mississippi, says such ads refl ect White anxiety over the importance of Sotomayor’s confi rmation.
“I think a lot of White Americans are scared,” Centellas says. “I think there’s this whole idea of ‘I want my country back. Everything is changing.'”
But Centellas says those fears are not limited to conservatives or Republicans. He says, during Obama’s nomination, his handlers de-emphasized his Kenyan heritage and highlighted his connection to White middle America by focusing on his Kansas grandparents. Such attempts, he adds, imply that Obama’s Blackness is an undesirable “other” when seeking White voters.
“It’s very diffi cult to get past that because the normal is White and it’s diffi cult for people to internalize what all that means,” he says. “We’ve tried for years to believe that this is a colorblind society.”
As a result, Sotomayor’s judicial record, which has leaned right of center on some issues, became an afterthought in the wake of conservatives’ desire to push the “wise Latina” issue. But Squires says even Sotomayor’s supporters tried to downplay her ethnic identity.
“The larger problem is that people on the left and liberals have been so cowed by race that they try not to offend White people,” she says. As a result, Squires says, Sotomayor’s supporters will try to highlight every case in which her decisions are in line with an “objective” ideal of the law. She says downplaying the role Sotomayor’s identity plays in her legal decisions reinforces an unrealistic notion of interpreting law.
“It’s better to be pluralist in this rather than adhere to this objective, unmediatedby- identity reading of the law,” she says. “There’s that juxtaposition of saying we’re all affected by our background and then pointing out that some of her decisions are normal in the eyes of the mainstream. And we’ve come to understand normal as being White male judges.”
Another problem, she adds, is that “people will question, ‘Is she in line with X?’ when X has not been defi ned.”
Still, Squires says she hopes the sort of reaction exhibited by those opposed to Sotomayor’s nomination signals “the death throes” of White conservative backlash. She points out that the country’s changing demographics are a reality.
Centellas, however, says the ugliness of the Sotomayor nomination and confi rmation process indicates that the country has a long way to go with how it deals with race and ethnicity, particularly in political discourse. Until then, he notes, being empathetic or showing that one’s ethnicity shapes his/her experiences won’t go over well with many Whites, whose perspectives with some exceptions have been shaped by the idea they don’t have ethnic backgrounds.
“We have to have a conversation in this country that everyone has an ethnicity,” he says. “I think someone has to initiate it. And I think that person has to be White.”
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