Senate hearings showcased GOP's out-of-date, racist divide-and-conquer politics. Can they learn before it's too late?

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 07/18/2009

Watching the media coverage of the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, two things struck me as clear political conclusions : (1) the Bronx native was politically prepared to prove she was qualified to be a Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States; (2) the Republican Party must either get real on the issue of race in politics or face certain death in national elections from here on out.

Whoever was in charge of the so called "murder boards" charged with drilling Sotomayor until she was prepared did a great job.  The lesson from the Alito and Roberts hearings was simple: be humble, sound scholarly, show deference when confronted by ideological opponents.  Sotomayor passed this test in flying colors. 

Beyond that, Sotomayor set a politically pleasing human tone for the hearings--something neither Alito nor Roberts managed to do (Roberts sounded like a robot; Alito came off like a sour robot).  From the room filled with happy family members, to the side stories about her fascination with baseball, to her million-dollar smile: Sotomayor gave Democrats a real personality to play up, and the cameras loved it. 

While there is rarel a "knockout" punch thrown in a judicial nomination hearing, Sotomayor won almost every round on points. And in the end, it was obvious she had weathered the storm.

The same thing cannot be said for the GOP, whose emphasis on the "wise latina" turned the hearings into a public display of an out-of-touch Republican campaign strategy: racially divide and conquer.

If one thing will be true about America over the next 10 years it will be this:  we will be more diverse ethnically and racially, not less.  How the GOP imagined they would make electoral gains at the polls by using a judicial nomination hearing to air old resentments about "reverse discrimination" is beyond comprehension.

But air old resentments they did.

Over and over again, every single Republican Senator in the hearings pretended in public not to understand what Sotomayor meant when she told a group of young Latina students that she hoped a "wise Latina" would make the best judge.

Expressions of ethnic pride are not only commonplace in America, today, but they have been commonplace for roughly the last 20 years.  And yet, somehow, this group of white men enshrined in the last relatively unintegrated private club of American public life--the United States Senate--pretended not to understand the difference between, on the one  hand, a public call for ethnic and gender pride issued to inspire young people and, on the other hand, a public display of racist and sexist prejudice hurled with the intention of malice and injury.

How sad for these Senators that they could not understand.  How very sad indeed.

The difference between expressing pride in one's identity and expressing hurtful prejudice is so simple that, nowadays, most American children under the age of 10 can explain it.  That is because the American system of education teaches children two fundamental lessons at a relatively early age:  How to recognize and avoid being cruel to others in racist and sexist terms, and how to celebrate the increasing diversity of American life. 

I am in my early 40s, so I remember when these two key concepts started to be taught aggressively on my college campus.  The time was, roughly, the mid-1980s.  We read books that reflected on an author's ethnic or gender identity, talked about the langauge we used in writing and conversation, and looked for ways to move beyond a general culture rife with intentional  and accidential cruetly on the basis of race, class and gender.  They were difficult lessons politically and emotionally, but they were not difficult intellectually to get.  I did not agree with 100% of the points made in those college classes, but I got the general idea and it made a difference it my life, as it did with everyone in my generation.

At the same time--the mid-1980s--these lessons quickly made their way into all levels of education in America.  By the 1990s, most school children in the country were familiar with a distinction that had not generally been visited on their parents:  being a good citizen meant celebrating cultural diversity, and trying one's best not to be racist or sexist.    Even if they do not all agree, there are few kids between the age of 15 and 21 in America, today, who do not understand that our society generally frowns on racism and looks proudly on celebrations of ethnic diversity.

Enter the Senate Republicans who questioned Sonia Sotomayor.

By their questions, the Republicans suggested time and time again that they did not understand--not at all--why a successful, woman judge of Puerto Rican ancestry might stand up in front of a room full of young Puerto Rican girls and express pride in her gender and ethnicity.  To them, it was "no different" than racism (e.g., labelling a bathroom 'whites only'). "I hope a wise latina makes a better judge" and "move to the back of the bus"--no different, all the same. Or so the Senate GOP wanted Americans listening to the hearings to believe.

Rather than sounding like a credible challenge to Sotomayor's credentials, the Republican questioning of her "wise latina" remark sounded like a blast from America's racist past--as if by some wonderous trick of science, these men in the Senate had walked out of 1974 and straight into the hearings of 2009.  Ethnic identity? Racial diversity?  Prejudice vs. pride?  What strange words all of these!  We've heard nothing about this.

Of course, by the end of this antequated form of racial political theater, the real reason for the Republican attention to the "wise latina" comment was revealed.  Writing in his weekly column, outspoken Latino-phobe Pat Buchanan revealed that the whole attack on Sotomayor's comment was really just an attempt to get votes by rallying white men to fear a Latina judge:

What they must do is expose Sotomayor, as they did not in the case of Ginsburg, as a political activist whose career bespeaks a lifelong resolve to discriminate against white males to the degree necessary to bring about an equality of rewards in society.

Sonia is, first and foremost, a Latina. She has not hesitated to demand, even in college and law school, ethnic and gender preferences for her own. Her concept of justice is race-based.

("How to  Handle Sonia")

Of course, this is exactly what the Senate GOP seems to have done, even though Buchanan lambasts them for not doing it.  Rather than actually pursuing Sotomayor on the basis of her career, they focused on the "wise latina" comment with an eye towards stoking the fear and resentment of "white males."  Sotomayor is  not an American like other Americans, was the case they made.  She is incapable of rendering any kind of judicial temperament that is not "race-based," was the implication.

Ironically, even before Sotomayor's nomination, Buchanan had been selling this kind of fear of a hostile Latino invasion of America via his best-selling books.  While he offers relatively benign commentary on MSNBC, Buchanan's books are on fire with horrific predictions about the "death" of white American culture at the hands of "militant" Latinos hell-bent on reconquering America. Buchanan predicts that America culture will die in a great breeding war, and lambasts liberals as being too drunk, too high, and too concerned about ethnic poetry to do anything about it.  He predicts the same for Europe at the hands of Arabic speakers.

For almost 20 years Buchanan has been making these predictions of doom about the death of white culture, while for the same 20 years America has been transformed into a culture that celebrates diversity.

Pat Buchanan's views of on the great race war of the 20th Century have not only been proven wrong by time, but they have been demonsrated wrong more recently at the national polls.  In the 2008 election, vast millions of diverse Americans helped elect the first non-white President, many driven by a deep conviction that ethnic and cultural diversity at the highest level of public office was a good thing for the country--a convinction nurtured by the fudnamental lessons about racism and diversity taught widely in schools since the 1980s. 

Given all this--why would the Senate GOP possibly follow this losing strategy of racial divide and conquer in the Sotomayor hearings?  The answer, most likely, is that things always seem darkest right before the dawn of political shift in a party.  

While it is impossible to make any predictions about a Republican Party that collectively cannot decide if it wants to keep or jetison the political travesty that is Sarah Palin, the Republican Party is certainly on the edge of a profound realization when it comes to the politics of race:  get real or get dead (at the polls).

For decades, now, the GOP has been following the racist advice of people like Buchanan with great success.  Racially dividing and conquering the electorate has worked at both the local and national level.  But that time is over and it does not take a genius to figure out that a new set of ideas will soon emerge in the GOP--or else.

Now, this does not mean that suddenly everyone in the GOP is going to start attending classess on gender-neutral language and come out in support of affirmative action.  Not a chance.  A new position on race politics for the GOP does not mean a sea change of ideas.

It does mean, however, that the voices at the top of the GOP pecking order who have been pushing racial divide for decades will slowly start to fall to the side. New voices with new strategies will emerge.  Those in the GOP who know in their hearts that racial division will not win elections anymore will start to find new ways to make that case persuasively and offer new ideas that actually can win elections.

What will be a sign that this change has started to happen?  Stay tuned for the mid-term elections in 2010.  Pat Buchanan will still be on MSNBC telling everyone who will listen that the Democrats are the party that hates white men and loves "militant Latina judges," but there will also be a new crop of commentators who will have more  conservative ideas crafted with 2016 in mind instead of 1970.

Or at least there better be a new crop. Because if Pat Buchanan is still the leading media voice offering GOP advice by the 2012 election, the GOP may not be around for 2016.

© Jeffrey Feldman 2009, Frameshop

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