Passing Judgement: Conservative Criticism of Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court Nomination Reflects the Nation's Struggle with Race and Ethnicity in Politics

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From the time President Barack Obama introduced Sonia Sotomayor as his U.S. Supreme Court nominee to the day of her confirmation as an associate justice, conservative criticism of her nomination remained vocal and unrelenting.

While some conservatives focused on Sotomayor's positions on gun rights and abortion, many seemed fixated with her comments regarding race and ethnicity. Their opposition, which continued up to the moment of the 68-31 Senate vote last month, appeared to be based on the notion that her ethnic background precluded her from judicial objectivity.

This might have been a typical conservative outcry to a left-of-center court nominee, but many scholars say the fight over Sotomayor is indicative of a larger struggle over the politics of identity. They say the Sotomayor nomination, on the heels of the election of the country's first Black president, appears to be an attempt by White conservatives to control the discourse on race and ethnicity.

Dr. Ronald Jackson, associate dean in the College of Media and chair of the African-American Studies department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says some of the GOP senators who opposed Sotomayor's nomination backed her appointment as a federal judge under President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Jackson says those same lawmakers might have felt pressure from conservative constituents wary of nominating a Latina to the nation's highest court.

"It could be argued that people are nervous," says Jackson, whose research has focused on the construction of Whiteness. "The whole confirmation turned into a spectacle."

Media coverage of the comments and discussions didn't place histories of race and issues such as affirmative action into proper context, University of Minnesota journalism professor Dr. Catherine Squires says.

"There are too few journalists who understand the history being framed," she says. As a result, "there is a very tangled network of problems that makes it very easy for [political commentator] Glenn Beck to say Obama hates all White people and that there is reverse racism."

Beck's comments--which he directed at Obama following his intervention in an alleged racial profiling case involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.--were repudiated by other conservatives, but they fell in line with claims by such right-wing commentators as Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, who considered the Sotomayor nomination as a direct attack on Whites. Limbaugh, for one, asserted that Sotomayor "brings a form of bigotry and racism to the court. ... And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That's what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive."

Squires, whose research has focused on public spheres and mediated discourses on race and gender, says the backlash against Sotomayor can be traced back to the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. The culture wars included attacks on welfare recipients and affirmative action using racially coded terms such as "welfare queens" and "quotas" in order to create White resentment toward a more multicultural country.

Moreover, she says, media coverage in recent years has included conservatives of color who have been strategically positioned to argue against diversity.

"You have this really terrible paradox of people using their race to debunk the idea that race matters," Squires says. "On the other side, you have Whites saying, 'We have lost our meritocracy.' Sotomayor's nomination brings White victimhood into the frame."

Political discourse has always included an element of race, though it has been largely coded since the GOP unleashed its Southern strategy to capture disaffected White Democrats. The backlash against affirmative action and crusades against political correctness in the 1990s stemmed from a perception by many White conservatives--and some moderates--that the country's changing demography shifted power away from those who have long held it. …