President Barack Obama has done a symbolically extraordinary thing by nominating for the first time in U.S. history a person of Latino descent to the Supreme Court. The president has stayed true to the theme of his long campaign when he adopted “Si Se Puede” from the legendary Latina leader, Dolores Huerta. Right-wing talk show hosts have been bludgeoning Judge Sonia Sotomayor, (first appointed to the federal bench by a Republican president), as if she were a kingpin in a Mexican drug cartel.
This toxic soil has been well fertilized by the anti-immigrant rants of CNN’s Lou Dobbs, by the high-profile “border patrol” work of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and by the paramilitary activities of the “Minutemen.” Add to this context the unwarranted venom of the hate-radio crowd and we can see that President Obama, like his Philadelphia speech on race during the 2008 campaign, has given the nation yet another teaching moment.
Glen Beck calls Judge Sotomayor “Hispanic chick lady”; G. Gordon Liddy says she speaks a language called “Illegal Alien” and frets about her “menstruating” in office; Newt Gingrich and Tom Tancredo label her a “racist,” (Tancredo even called La Raza a “Latino KKK”); Karl Rove calls her “not distinguished,” “emotional,” and claims Sotomayor is “combative, opinionated, argumentative”; Rush Limbaugh compares her to the Ku Klux Klansman David Duke and calls her every other coded and not-so-coded anti-Latino slur in the book.
Others have piled on calling her a “bigot” and a “radical” and an “activist” and a “socialist” and a “Marxist” and an “anti-constitutionalist” and an “affirmative action” nominee. They say “empathy” is a “liberal code word” for an “activist judge.” They call her “not too bright” and “an angry woman.” Mark Krikorian of the National Review even took issue with the pronunciation of her name, writing, “it sticks in my craw.” Politico’s Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin reported that Sotomayor was “a Latina single mother” despite the fact she has no children. Sean Hannity said that President Obama has “turned his back on Mainstream America” by nominating “the most divisive nominee possible.” And so on, and on, and on.
One thing is clear: President Obama’s choice of a Latina woman has sparked the ugliest reaction from the Republican Right we’ve seen in years.
These right-wing white men who are right now unleashing their inner racists all over the public airwaves are happy to see a 54-year-old Latina woman changing the sheets of their beds in their luxury hotel suites, or cleaning the bathrooms of their offices at night inside their high-rises, or washing the dishes in the kitchens of the fancy restaurants they frequent, but a Latina woman on the Supreme Court — the first ever — has really gotten under their alabaster skins. I can’t help but think of Stephen Colbert, who says he “doesn’t see race,” when I hear these multimillionaire white men screaming “racism” at Sonia Sotomayor. Is this a joke? Is this satire?
Lost in the din is Sotomayor’s own compelling Horatio Alger story. Her accomplishments rising from a disadvantaged background are every bit as impressive as Clarence Thomas’s or Alberto Gonzalez’s. When he testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee Attorney General Gonzalez, trying to save his job, fell back on his compelling life story: immigrant parents who knew the virtues of backbreaking agricultural labor. But what we’ve learned with the whole Sotomayor saga is that the only “compelling” personal stories of public officials that matter are those who belong to conservative Republicans — liberal Democrats need not apply — they’re all just “affirmative action” cases.
What President Obama has exposed with his choice of Judge Sotomayor is the seamy underbelly of latent American racism and misogyny. These hate-filled white men are on TV whining about Sotomayor’s “racism.” The whole sordid set of talking points the Right is pushing in hope of derailing her confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice shows that no matter what Sotomayor’s accomplishments — second in her class at Princeton, editor of the Yale Law Review, a decade as a federal judge — the Right judges her solely on her race and on her gender. Obama, once again, has forced America to look at its ugly side and the predictably vicious response of the Right has driven home the message with its astonishing hatred.
There was a time when George W. Bush pandered to Latino voters on the campaign trail by mouthing a few sentences in Spanish. Well, no amount of pandering to Latinos is ever going to help the Republicans win another election if they insist on keeping this deeply offensive burlesque going against Judge Sotomayor.
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).