America's largest minority would neutralize its power if it were taken for granted by one party and written off by another.
So I cringe when I think of the damage Republicans do to their brand by treating U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor with the one thing that many Latinos will not tolerate — disrespect. They know that President Obama's first nominee to the Supreme Court has the goods. Summa cum laude from Princeton. Editor of the Yale Law Journal. Seventeen years on the federal bench. She didn't just play the game; she dominated it.
After more than 20 years of writing about diversity issues, I knew Sotomayor would be in for a rough ride. Some of her critics on talk radio and in the news media have for years clung to the idea that white males are being discriminated against by affirmative action.
However, the attacks against Sotomayor were much swifter and uglier than I imagined.
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In fact, I don't even think the White House could have hoped things would turn out this well. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel must have known that he was putting Republicans in a box and making it hard for them to derail the first Latina Supreme Court justice. But how could he have known that so many in the GOP would willingly step into the box, lock it from the inside, then blow it up with irresponsible, hateful and disrespectful language? All because Sotomayor said in a speech almost a decade ago: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Some white males were insecure enough to take that comment literally. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh compared Sotomayor to white supremacist David Duke. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called her a racist. And former Rep. Tom Tancredo called the National Council of La Raza (which claims Sotomayor as a member) the "Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses."
The most childish comment came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, who, as a former military judge, seems to think this controversy is about him. "It is troubling, and it's inappropriate," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday" about the line in Sotomayor's 2001 speech. "And I hope she'll apologize."
Oh, brother. Should Sotomayor seek out and apologize to every white male in the United States? Won't that delay the confirmation hearings by, well, several decades? This is how bad things are: Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is distancing himself from the divisive fear mongers in his own party. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Sessions said that the word racist is not "an appropriate description" of Sotomayor and that her critics should not "demagogue" race — something that we need to treat "with respect that it deserves and the care that it deserves."
Mind you, this is the same Jeff Sessions who, in 1986, saw his own nomination to the federal bench derailed because of allegations of racial insensitivity. At the time, Sessions testified that he was joking and that his remarks were taken out of context when, during a murder investigation involving Ku Klux Klansmen, he said he had respect for the Klan until he found out some members of the white supremacist group smoked marijuana. And as bad as that was, Sessions now thinks the attacks on Sotomayor go beyond the pale? Unlike many Latinos, I've never seen either of the parties as having a monopoly on enlightenment when it comes to race issues.
Democrats can be as racially insensitive as Republicans. But if conservatives wipe their feet on this historic moment and savage an American success story for the sake of political theater, they'll seal their doom with Hispanics who will stay away from the GOP for decades.
I won't be able to help them. And nor would I want to.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE