Lessons from the Sotomayor Hearings

Over the weekend two very interesting pieces appeared.  One was Frank Rich’s column  in the New York Times, the other Melissa Harris Lacewell in the Nation.  Both approach the subject of Senatorial attitude toward a Latina woman.  One writer is a middle aged white male and former New York Times theater critic, the other a young, African American professor at Princeton. 

Here is Rich

Yet the Sotomayor show was still rich in historical significance. Someday we may regard it as we do those final, frozen tableaus of Pompeii. It offered a vivid snapshot of what Washington looked like when clueless ancien-régime conservatives were feebly clinging to their last levers of power, blissfully oblivious to the new America that was crashing down on their heads and reducing their antics to a sideshow as ridiculous as it was obsolescent.

The hearings were pure “Alice in Wonderland.” Reality was turned upside down. Southern senators who relate every question to race, ethnicity and gender just assumed that their unreconstructed obsessions are America’s and that the country would find them riveting. Instead the country yawned. The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here. The senators seemed to have no idea they were describing themselves when they tried to caricature Sotomayor as an overemotional, biased ideologue.

And here Harris-Lacewell

The hearing was a performance of a broader set of social rules that govern race and gender interactions in American politics. Women, and most especially black and brown women, have to prove their fitness for public life by demonstrating the ability to endure harsh brutality without openly fighting back. The ability to bear up under public degradation is a test of worth. America’s favorite black woman heroine is Rosa Parks, a woman who is remembered as silently enduring the humiliation of being ejected from a public bus for refusing to comply with segregated seating.

Sotomayor passed the test. She met the Senators’ questioning with thoughtful responses. Her voice did not quiver. Her face did not scowl. Many women of all races feel inspired by her. But I wonder about this lesson that continues to teach women that we can only have space in the public realm as long as we control all emotion.

They are both describing what Harris-Lacewell calls “the politics of public humiliation.”  The practice of this kind of politics in the year 2009 says more about the Republicans than about Sotomayor – or the current status of women of color.

Rich ties the Republicans to the Class of  1994, the Class of the Contract with America, the Newt Gingrich class.

That the class of ’94 failed on almost every count is a matter of history, no matter how hard it has retroactively tried to blame its disastrous record on George W. Bush. Its incompetence may even have been greater than its world-class hypocrisy. Its only memorable achievements were to shut down the government in a fit of pique and to impeach Bill Clinton in a tsunami of moral outrage.

…Today the G.O.P.’s token black is its party chairman, Michael Steele, who last week unveiled his latest strategy for recruiting minority voters. “My plan is to say, ‘Y’all come!’ ” he explained, adding “I got the fried chicken and potato salad!”Among Sotomayor’s questioners, both Coburn and Lindsey Graham are class of ’94. They — along with Jeff Sessions, a former Alabama attorney general best known for his unsuccessful prosecutions of civil rights activists — set the Republicans’ tone last week. In one of his many cringe-inducing moments, Graham suggested to Sotomayor that she had “a temperament problem” and advised that “maybe these hearings are a time for self-reflection.” That’s the crux of the ’94 spirit, even more than its constant, whiny refrain of white victimization: Hold others to a standard that you would not think of enforcing on yourself or your peers. Self-reflection may be mandatory for Sotomayor, but it certainly isn’t for Graham.

Harris-Lacewell puts it this way

All Supreme Court nominees endure tough, ideologically driven questioning. It’s as true for white male conservative justices as for Sotomayor. But this public display took on different meaning as white men repeatedly asserted that Sotomayor was capable of making legal judgments based only on her personal experience and ethnic identity.

I was proud of Sotomayor’s restraint, but I also wanted her to counter attack, to punch back, to show anger. She couldn’t do so in part because she is bound by the rules of judicial decorum. She also couldn’t do so because of the racialized, gender rules of political engagement that allow white men, from senators to firemen, to express outrage, indignation, and emotion, but disallow those same expressions from women of color.

So what have we learned?  We have learned that maybe Lacewell-Harris is right when she compares Sonia Sotomayor to Little Rock Nine student, Elizabeth Eckford.

One of the most enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement is of Elizabeth Eckford. She is being harassed and taunted by a group of white students, parents, and police on her way to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. On that morning Eckford missed connecting with the eight other African American students of the Little Rock Nine and their NAACP leader, Daisy Bates. Eckford was alone when the angry crowd surrounded and confronted her

Only now the mob is the composed of white, mostly southern, Republican Senators.

We have learned that women, regardless of race, regardless of how successful they may be,  still have to behave differently than men, that there is still a double standard.

We have learned, again, that the Republican Party is mostly clueless when it comes to race.  And I believe that their fear and dislike of Barack Obama will drive most of their behavior over the next eight years.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Sotomayor Hearings

  1. Strange, it sounds to me, based on the biased commentary cited, like the Left and their minority tenants are still, even unto this day, letting their fear and hatred of White men drive their behavior.

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