ONE DAY after President Obama nominated federal judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich labeled her a racist.
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor
"Imagine a judicial nominee said 'my experience as a white man makes me better than a Latina woman' new racism is no better than old racism," he wrote on Twitter, referring to Sotomayor's now infamous statement that a Latina woman is likely to make a better judge than a white man. "White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw."
It was a wretched thing to say, and Gingrich wasn't the only conservative Republican to say it. Rush Limbaugh called Sotomayor a "reverse racist" on his radio program; Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck announced that "she sure sounds like a racist." There were similar comments from controversialist Ann Coulter and former GOP congressman Tom Tancredo, and the Washington Examiner headlined an editorial "The racist jurisprudence of Sonia Sotomayor."
Sotomayor's views on race and ethnicity are certainly deplorable. She is apparently an unapologetic chauvinist who believes not only that a judge's perspective is hard-wired to gender, race, and ethnicity -- judging is affected by the "inherent physiological or cultural differences" of color, she says -- but that the "Latina" perspective is especially to be celebrated. Those views are odious to anyone who believes that justice, to be just, must be colorblind. Unfortunately, that is not what contemporary liberals believe. Sotomayor deserves to be questioned closely about her embrace of such benighted identity politics. She did not deserve to be smeared as a racist.
The comments of Gingrich, et al., quickly triggered a backlash. "What the hell is going on here?" demanded Chris Matthews on MSNBC after playing a clip of Limbaugh calling Sotomayor "an angry woman . . . a bigot . . . a racist." In The New York Times, columnist Charles Blow denounced the "fringe Republican race-baiting," and called the "racist" charge "shameful and defeatist." Senator Diane Feinstein of California lamented that "to call someone a racist . . . is just terrible" and only adds a "visceral and terrible heat" to public discourse. David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, condemned the accusation as "particularly offensive. . . . It certainly doesn't represent the appropriate language, attitude, orientation."
To his credit, Gingrich retracted his slur after a few days. "The word 'racist' should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable," he wrote on June 3. He now agreed, he said, with those who "have been critical of my word choice."
The demonizing of Sotomayor as a racist was outrageous, and liberals and Democrats were right to decry it. And if they now agree that such political hate speech should have no place in public life, perhaps they will insist on apologies from those in their own ranks who have been guilty of comparable slanders.
Starting with Senator Ted Kennedy.
It was on July 1, 1987, just 45 minutes after Ronald Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, that Kennedy uncorked a poisonous assault on one of the nation's most distinguished legal thinkers. "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids," Kennedy charged. Bork's thinking was "neanderthal" and "ominous," he said; confirming him would empower censors and slam the doors of the federal courts "on the fingers of millions of citizens."
They were despicable libels, as even admirers of Kennedy acknowledge. "The Bork of Kennedy's speech was a wild-eyed fascist and Bork the nominee was not," writes Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer, a veteran Washington correspondent. Ethan Bronner, who covered the story for the Boston Globe, later described Kennedy as having "shamelessly twisted Bork's world view" -- not in the heat of debate, but with malice aforethought.
The same malice would be visited subsequently on other conservative judges nominated by Republican presidents. In 1991, Clarence Thomas was slimed as a traitor to his race for having married a white woman, and accused of being a mouthpiece for white supremacists. "If you gave Clarence Thomas a little flour on his face," declared Carl Rowan, "you'd think you had David Duke talking." Judge Charles Pickering, a longtime voice of racial reconciliation, was defamed by Senator John Kerry as a "forceful advocate for a cross-burner" and by Senator Charles Schumer for his "glaring racial insensitivity."
In some left-wing precincts, accusations of racism are flung about with astonishing recklessness. The recent "Tea Party" protests by fiscal conservatives around the country, seethed actress/activist Janeane Garofalo, were "about hating a black man in the White House ... racism straight up." The Fox News Channel, says Keith Olbermann, is "as dangerous as the Ku Klux Klan." Gingrich himself has been a victim. When, as a Georgia congressman, he led House Republicans to victory in the 1994 elections, New York magazine's Jacob Weisberg blasted his policies as "a proxy for race-baiting," and added: "George Wallace was big in rural Georgia, too."
Few weapons of character-assassination are as abhorrent as the "racist" label falsely applied. Those who grow angry when conservatives apply it to liberals should be equally scandalized when liberals do it to conservatives. And, it should go without saying, vice versa.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)