Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Confirming Racism

Barack Obama has had a difficult relationship with two (sometimes overlapping) constituencies within the Democratic Party: Latinos and the gays. He never really won over either group during the tense primary season. Despite that fact, both groups nonetheless voted overwhelmingly for him in the general election (Before Clinton apologists jump on this, it is important to note that her stated positions toward both groups were almost identical to Obama’s – I have serious doubts her administration would have acted any different in these issues).

One would have imagined that Obama would therefore be more mindful of Latinos and gay concerns so that they remained on his side. Turns out, not so much.

For the gays, his administration has decided that we are expendable and is more than happy to toss us aside. He recently allowed his administration to file a legal brief comparing gay marriage to incest. Not only won’t Obama support equal marriage rights, but he has even balked at upholding the right of queer folk to serve their nation’s military. In place of real justice, he invited a few select A-list gays to the White House for a cocktail party.

During the campaign, Obama pledged to be a good “friend” to the queer community. Apparently Mr. Obama doesn’t see friendship as being about recognizing our basic equality before the law. Friendship seems to mean serving some soggy appetizers and watered-down cocktails in the East Room.

Or maybe Obama wants us to be the equivalent of adolescent “secret friends.” It’s cool if we come over to his house and play video games, but he doesn’t want the popular kids at school knowing that we hang out. He has his reputation to consider.

Latinos have not fared much better under Mr. Obama. Political considerations prompted him to appoint the notoriously anti-immigrant Arizona governor Janet Napolitano to head Homeland Security (the bureau that currently controls immigration for the entire U.S.). Obama also largely ignores Latin America until an absolute crisis forces him to pay attention.

He was, however, willing to throw [straight] Latinos a bone by nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Don’t get me wrong – That’s a pretty good bone. There is lots of meat on it and all the marrow is intact. We could be chewing on it for decades to come. Well, that’s assuming that Nepolitano doesn’t deport us all.

Merely being Latina, though, is not enough to draw the support of the Latino community. After all, the Bushie administration frequently floated Alberto Gonzales’s name as a potential nominee to the Supreme Court. Latinos rarely supported the idea, even before Gonzales contracted that crippling case of amnesia that seemed to tear his life apart.

Still, I generally like Sotomayor. By all accounts, she has been a remarkably thorough and deliberate judge. What really sealed the deal for me was when she broke her ankle while traveling to meet with the Senate. Not only did Sotomayor still make her flight, she hobbled her way up the steps of Capitol Hill without missing an appointment. There is a woman who wants a job! Well, who can blame her given how high the unemployment rate is these days? I hear that Supreme Court Justice gig comes with a nice benefits package, maybe even dental!

Sotomayor’s path from nomination to confirmation has exposed the general public’s ambivalence about discussing race in the nation. Republicans know that they are in a precarious position with the public. Voters appear to finally have had it after decades of Republican mismanagement, corruption, and a disregard for the welfare of the majority of citizens. Since most Republicans don’t actually want to change their positions, they see their best bet at victory as whipping up hate. Hey, it worked for Bushie in 2004. Despite having driven the nation into the ground (and spending most of his time on vacation), he could still build a winning reelection campaign based on homophobia, anti-immigrant hysteria, and unending war. Republicans see a prime chance to use common racism as a means to get back into the limelight (They also conveniently ignore that it was Bush I who appointed Sotomayor to the U.S. District Court).

At the instant of her nomination, Republicans attacked viciously. Newt Gingrich and the various pundits declared her a “racist.” Mitt Romney declared her nomination “troubling.” Religious zealot Mike Huckabee released a scathing statement slamming Sotomayor. Of course, Huckabee was a bit confused and called her “Maria” Sotomayor rather than her actual name, Sonia Sotomayor. Apparently Huckabee just assumes that all Latinas are named Maria. Yeah, but Sotomayor is the “racist.”

More than anything else, Republicans have seized on Sotomayor’s now infamous statement that “a wise Latina woman” might make decisions about the law differently than an individual of another race or gender. If we are to believe Republicans, apparently Sotomayor will use her seat on the Supreme Court to institute a bloody race war that will only end when Puerto Rico has triumphed and enslaved the rest of the world.

Of course, Republicans also argue that Sotomayor is going to take away everybody’s guns. So, I guess it will be a race war fought with banana-cream pies.

What I find astounding about the whole debate is that we are seemingly expected to believe that the Supreme Court in the United States, up until this point, has been somehow “race blind.” If we accept what the Republicans are saying, then Sotomayor would radically alter the court because she *gasp* might be influenced in her interpretations of the law by her racial and gender identities.

Actually, the Supreme Court has often made decisions with racial implications (if not directly influenced by race). These were decisions that upheld a racial hierarchy within the United States by interpreting the Constitution in particular ways that benefited white men. They were also decisions made exclusively by white men.

Indeed, it was often cases involving race that helped solidify the Supreme Court’s authority within the U.S. Of course, there are the well-known ones: In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court ruled that the drafters of the Constitution considered African Americans “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled the forced separation of the races was just dandy. Other cases, though, are not as frequently discussed. In the 1831 Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that Native-American tribes existed in a type of legal limbo as “domestic dependent nations.”

As residents in Puerto Rico, Sotomayor’s family felt the implications of the Supreme Court’s power directly. In 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court case Downes v. Bidwell more-or-less defined that island (and other occupied U.S. territories) as a colony of this nation. While ostensibly about taxes, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not extend to Puerto Rico or its inhabitants because it was merely a “possession” of the United States.

The majority of justices couldn’t find a consensus about how the law permitted that to be true. Instead, they submitted five different opinions, none of which received a majority endorsement. The one with the most support explained that Puerto Rico “was foreign to the United States in a domestic sense.” In other words, Puerto Ricans just didn’t “fit in” with the rest of the U.S. They spoke a different language, looked different, and had different customs. As a result, the U.S. did not legally have to treat Puerto Rico as an equal part of the nation. One might hope that, had a Puerto Rican been on the Supreme Court in 1901, that ze might have objected to such logic (no matter how based in the “law” it was).

Such rulings, which certainly had racial implications, have had long-term implications that have yet to be resolved. The Pew Hispanic Center just recently released a report on Puerto Rican demographics in the fifty states. Today, more than four million Puerto Ricans live in the mainland United States, slightly more than live on the actual island of Puerto Rico (which, btw, is still a U.S. possession without a voting member of Congress – All Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens). Puerto Ricans are the second largest Latino population in the U.S., but are far overshadowed by Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Puerto Ricans account for only 9 percent of the total Latino population in the U.S., but Mexicans and Mexican Americans are a substantial majority (constituting 64 percent of the total Latino population). Puerto Ricans, like all Latinos, have less access to education and earn less than the general population. They also have lower rates of homeownership, lower than even the rate for Latinos overall.

So, it doesn’t surprise me that Sotomayor might have a particular take on the law based on her background. Of course, accusations that one’s racial and gender identities would bias their decisions is not something that seems to come up when white men are appointed to the court. The current Chief Justice, John Roberts, sailed through the confirmation process. Shortly thereafter, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that Seattle, Washington’s defacto segregated school system did not violate the rights of minority students. The Court thus severely limited the ability of all the nation’s schools to consider race as a means to achieve integration. Roberts glibly promised that pretending that race doesn’t matter in this nation will make it so. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” he wrote, “is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.”

Did you hear that, people? Simply stop being racist and racism will be over. Why didn’t we think of that before? It’s all so simple! All these centuries and it took such a brilliant jurist to simply say, “stop discriminating based on race.” Oh, brave new world!

How can one not but conclude that Roberts’ na├»ve assumptions about racism are the result of his elite background and status as a middle-age white man? One guesses that he probably still believes that it was his clapping that brought Tinkerbell back to life.

The legal and social status quo means inequity for Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups (Not to mention women, other racial minorities, queer folk. . .) Existing injustices, some of which are written into our laws, are the legacy of racism in this nation. That can’t be wished away.


vuboq said...

I would totally support a banana cream pie war. It sounds delicious.

Mel said...

But do we really expect anything different from the Republicans? After all, Lindsey Graham won his seat by Jew-baiting his (not actually Jewish) female rival and using overtly sexist ads in his campaign.

I'm surprised he hasn't come right out and said, "Tell me, Maria. Don't all y'all just want to make us white folks eat beans and listen to merry-atchee music?"

dance said...

I have seen (not-US) documents from the 1820s & 1830s in which slaveholders say "if we stop all this talking about race and not noticing it, it will just go away and there will be harmony". Also, that's what France does, I hear. Doesn't seem to work too well.

Frank said...

The only thing is I don't think the Republican attack on Sotomayor has particularly worked. Sure, the Usual Suspects in the punditsphere and the wingnut blogosphere are frothing at the mouth, but, on the whole, I get more of a sense of "Meh!" than anything from people. And I actually think that's appropriate, because, you know, as this week has taught us... confirmations are BORING. Seriously, you have to be a big policy/judicial wonk to not start snoring. And Lindsay Graham actually spoke the truth when he said she'd get nominated almost no matter what; this is all theater, great huffing and puffing signifying nothing. They can't, and haven't been, attacking her experience or her record, because they can't, so it's all about the damn "wise Latina" thing. They're attacks are so ridiculous, too, that even people who might be mildly racist, which I have to include people like my mother in, are all, "Really? You're serious?" Plus, she's apparently kicking ass (I just read blog reports on it; I'm not a wonk), so there's that, too, especially when some of those senators sound like absolute morons.

Antonio said...

Good post.

The way the Right is blowing a gasket is outrageous. I think the most shocking statement I read was from, of all people, G. Gordon Liddy about whether Sotormayor will be menstrating while making a decision. I mean, I don't get why anyone cares what he thinks in the first place, but that's a whopper of a bigoted statement.

susurro "the wordy" said...

@gayprof - (1st excuse me for all the additional comments below . . .) just wanted to say thanks for the reasoned review. It's past time to discuss his record analytically. FYI- the dept of justice also filed a brief saying DADT was necessary to maintain the troops against the military's own findings, and his staff's statement that he is working on reviewing DADT have been disproven since he has had no meetings with anyone in the military about it nor were any scheduled for this year to date. (Oh but he did promise once again to address both at that fancy dinner that I got an email asking to promote.) His administration has also decided not to challenge a recent decision to exclude transgender rights from certain policy decisions. In comparison, I do think he has done a better job on Latin America. While he continues to support debilitating trade agreements, he has taken a higher interest in environmental, cultural, and labor issues and has a higher "tolerance" for "non-traditional" political systems. Being there during the Honduras crisis and also participating in LACS based talks during the Columbia situation, also seem to have pushed his thinking in positive ways. As for Latinos, the man still supports a border fence and this rhetoric of the "back of the line" so you know . . . and he has been largely silent about Sotomayor (all tho I heard he did have a meeting with several groups assuring them about her stance on women's issues)

@mel - thanks for that info, I missed it & will be looking for a cite to add to my post about Graham's meltdown on the 2nd day of hearings

@dance - to me, the French thrive on the exoticization of the African body & fear of immigrants from Africa & the Middle East. It saturates pop culture & is most recently evidenced by the ban on head scarves and the rise in supramcist orgs (as well as the sale of Nazi inspired products which I find just freaky)

@Frank - yeah but did he say that b/c it was true or b/c it fit into his "reverse discrimination" anti-affirmative action narrative?

Historiann said...

Great post & comments, GayProf and friends. (Hey--you could be the SuperFriends!)

I think Roberts's ideas, and the ideas of many on the Right about race and racism, go to the fatal white person's flaw of believing that racism is an emotion they either feel or they don't feel, rather than the objective social and cultural conditions under which many people live. Thus, the magical thinking (and I love the Tinkerbell allusion, BTW): "If I close my eyes and try real hard, racism will disappear because racism is something inside me (or not)! So if I don't feel I'm racist, and I don't see or hear racism myself, racism doesn't exist! Yay!"

This is also the root of the fantasy of "post-racial" America, IMHO. I am not a "Clinton apologist," although I will say that I supported her in the primary and was disturbed by the degree to which many white Dems truly believed that if they voted for a black man, all of America's racial sins would be washed clean. That's no reflection on Obama's qualities as a candidate or as a leader--but it surely made me reluctant to sign onto his bandwagon because of all of the a$$hattery among his supporters. Tinkerbell, indeed.

tornwordo said...

I can't watch the confirmation hearings. Every time I see an uptight republican senator grilling her I think, "Really? People actually elected you?" They all sound so inbred to me.

Steven said...

I had only heard recently about that cocktail party and I was so irked by the GLBT guests at the White House taking in everything that Obama said as if it was going to be a piece of cake to get everything done/overturned.

I just don't want to see Anita Hill show up at Sotomayor's confirmation hearings and claim having a lesbian relationship with Sonia.

Mike said...

Elected doughboys like Senators Sessions, McCain and Hatch have that paternalistic mindset that only straight, white men like themselves are capable of being truly rational and unbiased, because they, unlike women, blacks, gays and Latinos are unfettered by feminine emotionalism and rabid ethnicity.

A similar take seems to be standard rhetoric at Fox News and with commentators like Glenn Beck and Patrick Buchanan.

So, unless you're a southern or western Senator with Elmer's glue-white skin and a Deputy Dawg drawl, you're probably RACIST!