Sotomayor and Race in America

(Cross-posted from; Image from

The point is simple – clichéd, even.  But this simple point is so often denied in the United States of 2009.  The point is that race matters.  More specifically, race matters in how we interpret the Constitution of the United States. Debates over the constitution, especially at the Supreme Court, often willfully ignore or obscure the living and continued significance of race and racism.  The racial category you belong to plays a significant part in your life, if you’re an American, but American legal doctrine over the last several decades has refused to accept this fact.

Much as they did during the 1800s, today’s American courts allow entrenched racial discrimination to continue.  Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the courts used openly racist thinking to enforce policies like slavery, segregation, and whites-only citizenship.  Today, the courts use colorblindness to brush aside the reality of race and racism aside.  They overturn and restrict race-conscious policies designed to help alleviate racism faced exclusively by people who are identified as racial and ethnic minorities.  The courts can and should consider the impact of race when it deals with cases like voting rights, sentencing for drug use, law enforcement strategies that roundup random Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans, and the legality of practices and policies that drove nonwhite families into needlessly expensive “subprime” mortgages.  But instead, legal scholars (including a majority of the Supreme Court Justices) regularly disagree with the need even to recognize the mere existence of socially constructed race.

It’s not a coincidence that Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has already become contentious on the issue of race.  Sotomayor’s views on race and racism are becoming an object of public debate, thanks to coverage by national media (and thanks to well-publicized and ridiculous accusations that Sotomayor is herself “racist”).  Her rulings during her illustrious career show that while she’s hardly a radical, Sotomayor does favor a reality-based judiciary that understands and considers the impact of race and racism.  Because of this (and in part because she is Latina), she has already faced more questions about race than any other nominee to sit on the Supreme Court than anyone else in quite a long time.  And she hasn’t even sat for confirmation hearings yet.

Before Judge Sotomayor arrives on Capitol Hill for confirmation hearings, I’d like to take a moment to consider why legal scholars argue against recognizing the existence of race in America.  And then let’s consider how the next decade in legal thought might be influenced, thanks to Sotomayor’s presence on the Court.

The legal argument for denying reality – for denying the existence of race – is rooted in the colorblindness doctrine.  My understanding is that the basic idea behind colorblindness is: only by ignoring race can we truly transcend it.  You see, if we keep talking about race, if we acknowledge it, then we allow the race concept to persist.  So, what we should do is pretend that race isn’t there.  If we adjust our thinking to a colorblind world, then in time, reality will catch up with our thinking.  This kind of thinking has been proven wrong again and again, most thoroughly by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.

The colorblindness perspective didn’t come out of nowhere.  Continue reading…

Anti-Latina Racism Morphs to Become Anti-Asian

In a bizarre twist, TPM points out that the latest NationalReview cover meant to satirize the “wise Latina” Sotomayor visually portrays her as Asian (h/t @lehmannchris via Twitter).   The mind boggles.  I’ll admit I’m short on analysis on this one; feel free to drop a comment and offer your own interpretation.  nationalreviewcover

(UPDATE from Joe):

This is not a new problem with the National Review. They seem to have some sort of Asian fetish. In a 1997 issue of that conservative magazine, a large pictorial cartoon concerning fundraising investigations of Democratic Party leaders appeared on its cover. This showed caricatures of then President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton as slant-eyed (like Sotomayor!), buck-toothed Chinese in Mao suits and Chinese hats–images suggesting very old white-stereotyped images of Asian/ Asian American characteristics. Since the 19th century, white cartoonists, political leaders, and media commentators have portrayed Chinese and other Asian Americans in such visually stereotyped terms, often to express a fear of the “Yellow Peril.” When confronted, the National Review’s white editor admitted these were Asian caricatures but refused to apologize. Such reactions, and the fact that there was little public protest of the cover outside Asian American communities, suggest that such racial stereotypes remain central to the white racial framing of Asians/Asian Americans. And now, apparently, of Latinos. Perhaps this cover is to signal “peril” to whites from Latinos?

NB: Thanks to Jon Smajda web guy for, who – once again – valiantly assisted with WP sidebar problem.

Racists calling “Racist”

sotomayorBarbinMD at dailykos has a useful summary of some of the right-wing white male commentators calling Sonia Sotomayor “racist,” even with their own extensive records of racist commentaries and actions (Image Source: Wikipedia). Barbin MD reproduces this nice little discussion centered on congress critter, Tom Tancredo, and a young white male associate:

TANCREDO: If you belong to an organization, called La Raza in this case, which is from my point of view anyway, just nothing more than a Latino, it’s a counterpart, it’s a Latino KKK without the hoods …
SCHUSTER: A Latino KKK — would you like to take this opportunity to apologize?
TANCREDO: (Laughs) No.
SANCHEZ: It turns out that Tom Tancredo has some explaining to do on this very front, because the Executive Director of his political action committee, his political action committee, has admitted to a blatantly racist act. It’s now revealed that in 2007, this man, Marcus Epstein, according to a Secret Service witness, came out of a bar in Washington, called a woman the “n” word, and then slapped her in the head. Slapped her in the head. He fled the scene, but he was eventually arrested. Epstein, who is due back in court next month, is blaming his behavior on too much alcohol. But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it’s more than that. They have described Epstein as a man with a network of racist connections. Back to Tancredo now — who said on this show, people who associate with racist organizations are racists. Congressman, why is Mr. Epstein still in charge of your political organization? And what sir, does that say about you? We got in touch with Tancredo. He declined to answer our questions yesterday, repeatedly.

Various folks like Tom Tancredo, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh first called not only the La Raza civil rights group, but also Judge Sonia Sotomayor a racist, but then later started backing off on this and sounding confused.Rush Limbaugh is one good example, as here in this meandering gibberish:

… it’s racism, reverse racism, whatever, but it’s still racism. And she would bring a form of racism, bigotry to the court. But as I said yesterday, folks, I may look past that. I’ve got a whole stack on Sotomayor today. You know she would be the sixth Catholic on the Supreme Court and there are a lot of people worried about that. That does not bother me at all. I know a lot of Catholics, I love Catholics. But Sotomayor, she’s a Catholic, and she doesn’t have a clear record on abortion and I’m, overturning Roe versus Wade, well, that could be huge. I don’t know that it’ll ever happen, but if, you know, the opportunity to get somebody like her — she’s a Catholic, she’s a devout Catholic. She’s a Hispanic Catholic, Puerto Rican, they tend to be devout. She hasn’t got a record on this. Normally liberals do have a record, I mean when they’re pro-choice, man they’re, they, they, they champion it. They shout from mountaintops, they trumpet it. She hasn’t so I, I can see a possibility of supporting this nomination. If I can be convinced that she does have a sensibility toward life.

Given his own record of racist comments, this is very strange indeed.

Living in this country, when it comes to issues of race and racism is often like being Alice in Wonderland. The white-controlled mainstream media commentators get to define any word, like “racist” or “racism,” just about any way they want to. Why then do we have social scientists working so hard on trying to gather data on racism and defining it more precisely?

Racism and Right-Wing Lunacy

For a group that regularly decries what they view as “minority” whining, and the politics of victimization, white conservatives are demonstrating a penchant for the unhinged histrionics of victimhood, virtually unparalleled in modern times. Facing a nation led by a black man, with a black wife and black children, sullying the hallowed halls of a house they long considered white in more than just name, the far-right finds itself in the midst of a prolonged and currently exploding aneurysm, which would be humorous to observe were it not so toxic in its consequences for the nation.

Going off the Rails on a Crazy Train: Right-Wing Lunacy in the Age of Obama

Now, with the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, these same gasbags see yet further confirmation of the takeover of America by hostile colored forces. It is making them insane, literally, as with Bill O’Reilly, who recently stated with a straight (if somewhat contorted and scowling) face, that Sotomayor’s nomination is just more evidence that the left “sees white men as the problem,” in America.

Reactionary cranks across the radio dial have been trying to outdo one another in the annals of batshit lunacy, and so Continue reading…

Gloria Steinem, Where Are You Now?

3005744513_a264349f2bIf you’ve been following the increasingly racist, sexist, and thoroughly disgusting attacks on Sonia Sotomayor, then you’ve no doubt seen this headline: “G. Gordon Liddy on Sotomayor: ‘Let’s Hope the Key Conferences Aren’t When She’s Menstruating.’ ”

While striking, this revolting statement is not that far of a stretch from other classics of the last few days: Sotomayor as dumpy, schoolmarmish, and too “emotional.”

These statements are obviously grossly offensive and fairly reek of profoundly sexist ideals. I do not claim to be a Supreme Court expert, but I’ve been following nominations pretty closely since the Clarence Thomas debacle in the 1990s and have yet to hear any criticisms of any male justices’ appearance or emotional tenor. As far as I can tell, when it was time to consider his nomination to the Court, no one cared what Antonin Scalia looked like or bothered to describe him as dumpy, fat, or bloated. No one asked whether Clarence Thomas had the temperament for the Supreme Court, even though he looked mad enough to spit nails when he had to face accusations of sexual harassment, while Anita Hill remained calm and unflappable when Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter basically called her a liar.  The double standard here is a glaringly obvious, clear cut, basic example of sexism in American politics. How else to explain that looks and emotion suddenly became significant issues for Judge Sotomayor when they never mattered for any of her predecessors?

But I don’t need to point all this out, because fortunately we have a number of prominent feminist women who are quick to use their public platform to denounce obvious cases of sexism, and to condemn those who are instrumental in perpetuating these assaults against women…right? Why, just last year, noted feminist icon Gloria Steinem (image from here), wrote a widely discussed editorial in the New York Times defending then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton against charges of sexism, and lamenting that “the sex barrier was not taken as seriously as the racial one.”

During this same election cycle, Geraldine Ferraro made controversial statements arguing that Obama’s race was an advantage, and contended that “if he were a woman of any color he would not be in this position,” implying, like Steinem, that male privilege was so endemic that it could elevate a black man over any woman of any color.  Martha Burk got a lot of attention a few years back for demanding that the Masters golf tournament allow women to join its hallowed ranks, and was a clear, cogent voice in drawing attention to this institutionalized sexism in the athletic world.

Funny how I haven’t heard any statements from these women castigating G. Gordon Liddy, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, or Michael Steele for their repugnant, sexist, and racist remarks about Judge Sotomayor. Funny how they haven’t jumped out in front of this issue the same way they did when Hillary Clinton was the one on the receiving end of a barrage of sexist statements. Funny how the PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass) who were so outraged at the way the Democratic Party ostensibly treated Hillary Clinton now don’t seem to see this as a worthy cause of their efforts, and aren’t outraged by Democratic politicians’ unwillingness to call these abhorrent statements the blatant misogyny that they are.

What’s not funny are the implications this has for women of all races. When white feminists look the other way when Michelle Obama is callously referred to as “Obama’s Baby Mama,” when Sonia Sotomayor is savaged by right wing conservatives who engage in the basest types of sexism, or more broadly, when women of color across the country face higher rates of abuse, incarceration, and poverty than white women, it sends a clear message about their lack of respect for and interest in the ways sexism impacts women of other racial groups and class positions. It reinforces the idea that white women feminists are interested in maintaining their white privilege while undermining sexism, a process that keeps women of color oppressed but broadens the category of whites who have access to and are able to wield power over others. It perpetuates the (erroneous) message that feminism has nothing to offer women of color, even though they too suffer from the gender wage gap, sexual violence, and all the other manifestations of gender inequality.

I do not understand why white feminists like Steinem, Ferraro, Burk, and others still don’t seem to get this message that intersections of race and gender matter and that the feminist movement cannot succeed without the influence and involvement of ALL women.

This point has been made for years, by many progressive white women (playwright Eve Ensler, sociologist Margaret Andersen) and feminists of color (sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, activist Pauli Murray, writer Alice Walker). It would be really nice if the rampant sexism being directed towards Sonia Sotomayor finally served as an overdue wake-up call about the importance of both race and gender.

Racism, Sexism and The Significance of Sotomayor

AsSCOTUS 2 expected, Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has drawn controversy, media attention, analysis and even some humorous send-ups of right-wing critics (Creative Commons License photo credit: Padraic).

Opponents have alternately claimed that Sotomayor is (a) not smart enough for the Court (despite degrees from Ivy League Universities and an apparent history of exemplary academic performance), (b) racist, and (c) perhaps most bizarrely, saddled with an unpronounceable name

While these conversations themselves warrant another post (and analysis of their racist and sexist assumptions, particularly the one that she’s not smart enough), what strikes me the most about Sotomayor’s nomination is what it suggests for the future of race relations in this country. Not in terms of the “role model” argument (the idea that young people need to see someone like them in positions of power to help them see that their options are plentiful and far-ranging), though I think there is some merit to that claim.

Sotomayor’s presence on the Court, in my opinion, reveals much about the way Obama intends to address racial inequalities in his role as president.

Of late, Obama has not said much about racial matters, particularly issues of racial inequality. Many of his statements about race that I’ve read date back to 2006 or 2007, well before he was a serious candidate for President. In several these statements, he acknowledges the existence and consequences of systemic racism:

“I don’t believe it is possible to transcend race in this country. . . Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history.” (Essence magazine, October 2007)

However, on the campaign trail and while President, Obama mostly remained quiet about the ongoing existence of systemic racism and his plan to put policies into place that remedy it. In fact, he has gone on record talking about the need for class-based policies, using the metaphor that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Of course, President Obama walks a very difficult line, one none of his predecessors have had to balance. If he appears racially conscious, he runs a high risk of upsetting supporters who like to see him as color blind, offering easy ammunition to opponents looking for anything to use as a source of criticism, and maybe most significantly, seeing his support and ability to get things done erode in a wave of racially-tinged suspicion. If we assume that eradicating racial inequality matters to him, how then does Obama put policies into place without sacrificing political capital and losing control of his momentum?

Enter Judge Sotomayor, the first potential Supreme Court justice who will have personally experienced the multiple, overlapping oppressions of racism, sexism, and poverty. Who has observed that dealing with these intersecting factors would likely render her more capable of reaching a wise, sound decision on cases of discrimination than her white male peers who benefit from their race, gender, and class privilege. Who at the same time acknowledged that these intersecting factors do not preclude elite white men from reaching sound, fair decisions on cases of discrimination (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), but sees the reality that living her life as a woman of color gives her a particular insight into oppression that might escape her white male colleagues.

What makes Sotomayor’s nomination especially relevant right now is that Chief Justice Roberts has issued some of his most telling decisions and statements on cases related to racial discrimination and civil rights .  Despite his clear intelligence and stellar academic credentials, Roberts is woefully uneducated when it comes to the realities of racial oppression in this nation. Operating from the color blind racist perspective, Roberts is apparently of the opinion that any focus on race—even with the intent of diversifying, correcting ongoing racial inequalities, or addressing systemic racial imbalances—is in and of itself racist. This willful refusal to recognize that racism is built into the very core of the political, economic, and social foundations of this nation, has always worked to disadvantage people of color, and will continue to do so if left unchecked, is an egregious blind spot on the part of our Chief Justice. So too is his inability to distinguish between taking race into consideration when trying to make a school system diverse (in compliance with Brown v. Board) and focusing on race in efforts to create and maintain segregated, unequal social systems.

Right now Sonia Sotomayor is being savaged by people who refuse to respect her intelligence and hard work, and instead seem to think that her status as a Latina signifies a person who is dumb and unqualified. It’s particularly ironic that she may sit on a Court that decides whether affirmative action policies are legal or even remain necessary. It seems to me that Sotomayor’s experience having her qualifications disregarded in a way that evokes common racial/gendered stereotypes would give her a perspective on the necessity of affirmative action that might elude Judges Roberts, Alito, and Scalia.

People often mistakenly assume affirmative action just elevates unqualified minority candidates, but when used wisely and correctly its purpose is to create opportunities for racial minorities who work hard, are eminently qualified, but still face discrimination because of potential employers’ biases (like the automatic, reflexive assumption that people of color are less intelligent). It seems to me that what Sotomayor is facing right now is a prime example of said biases, and this speaks directly to her statements for the value of a diverse bench. These are the types of experiences that can help Sotomayor see aspects of the law that Chief Justice Roberts, with his color blind worldview, will likely miss.

Obama is a smart enough politician to know that a candid focus on policies openly designed to eradicate racism will impair his ability to fulfill his other priorities and will pretty much guarantee him a one-term presidency. But he can select a Supreme Court nominee with stellar credentials, extensive legal experience, and the personal history to allow her to see what her colleagues are comfortable ignoring. She can’t make policy from the bench, but she can make sure the law works for everyone. In doing so, she can be Obama’s voice for racial and gender equality.