02 June 2009

Republicans, Race and Sotomayor

There's a debate going on among Republicans over how to deal with the nomination of Judge Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Some GOP politicians resent efforts by Rush Limbaugh and others (many of whom, Senator Cornyn notes, hold no elected offices) to goad them into opposing Sotomayor's confirmation. Senator Hatch, the ranking Republican in the Judiciary Committee, has said that Sotomayor will probably be confirmed handily barring an unexpected scandal.

This sort of talk simply won't do for the die-hard Rushites who still want revenge for the Senate's rejection of Robert Bork more than twenty years ago. They won't be satisfied until they bring down a Democrat's pick for the Court, and they feel entirely justified in opposing Sotomayor because her Berkeley speech of 2001 proves her a "racist" in their eyes.

Mr. Right is one of this group. He thinks that the infamous sentence about the "wise Latina woman" alone is sufficient to disqualify Sotomayor from the Court, and he claims that those who don't consider her a racist are using the usual liberal double-standard approach. If a white man had ever said that his life experience would lead him to make a better decision than someone from any other background, he says, that man would never have been nominated. This is no doubt true, but it doesn't discredit the "life experiences" argument. If you accept its full implications, then there must be occasions when the white man's particular experience may give him the right solution to a quandary that others won't understand fully. What Sotomayor didn't say is what Mr. Right infers from her speech; that the WLW will always reach better decisions than the theoretical white male. I still think the Judiciary Committee should press Sotomayor to clarify her views, but I'm pretty sure they won't end up resembling Mr. Right's caricature.

Realizing that many Republicans are reluctant to challenge Sotomayor because they fear alienating Hispanic voters, Mr. Right says they shouldn't worry. He suggests that Hispanics won't hold opposition to Sotomayor against the GOP. After all, he notes, they didn't punish Democrats at the polls when they opposed the previous President's nomination of Hispanic conservative Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Court of Appeals and the nomination of Alberto Gonzalez for Attorney General. Nor did blacks punish Democrats for opposing the nomination of Janice Rogers Brown, a black conservative, to the same D.C. court.

I'm not sure if he means this as a serious argument. For one thing, there might have been more minority interest in these judges if the Republicans and the Rushites had done more to publicize their aspirations. I get little impression that they did this, since that would probably seem to many of them like some sort of affirmative action program. Don't get me wrong. I think they're happy to see conservatives appear in minority groups, but their aversion to multiculturalism constrains them from making as big a deal about these people as they could. They would rather blame the "liberal media" for ignoring the existence of minority conservatives. But this whole line of argument depends on the assumption that minority groups would have an ethnic-pride stake in any judge who rises from their ranks. That assumption falters against the more likely fact that underprivileged minority groups are still likely to see people who come from their midst espousing Reagan-style conservatism as "sell-outs" of some sort. I don't get any sense of unconditional love for Justice Thomas from the black community, after all. But if Hispanics see Sotomayor as having their interests at heart, rather than some ideology, then they could well resent Republicans for opposing her for having exactly those interests. If it comes to that, I suspect Mr. Right will shrug it off as another case of "selective outrage" based on partisanship, but I don't know whether other Republicans could shrug it off so easily. That's one reason why I'm hoping for a confirmation fight, the other major reason being my desire to see Sotomayor defend her principles under some serious scrutiny.

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