Sotomayor and the Ugliness of Identity Politics

The calculated nomination of judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is the latest example of the rejection of the idea of a color-blind society.  Martin Luther King dared to dream of a future when his four children could "one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."  Unfortunately Yolanda King, the eldest of his children, passed away before that dream was ever realized, as today the discussion surrounding the newest Supreme Court nominee is about the color of her skin, rather than the merit of her judicial philosophy.

Defenders of Sonia Sotomayor's nomination have taken to condemning the rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich under the pretense that the conservative icons are responsible for denigrating the discussion and making it all about race.  This could hardly be further from the truth.  It is the proponents and adherents of identity politics, the most prominent of which who now resides in the White House, that have burdened us with perpetual discussion about irrelevancies like race, and it is Sonia Sotomayor herself who has made it her defining characteristic.  This is a far cry from the post-racial promise of the Barack Obama campaign.

The politics of identity is always presented as an end in itself; the goal is to achieve representation for minority groups.  But in practice it is a tool designed to obscure the true objectives of its practitioners: the advancement of left-wing politics.  It is the political beliefs of the individual, and not their group membership, that determines whether identity politics will be used for or against them, to enhance their reputations or to destroy them.  This is the exact opposite of what proponents of identity politics proclaim.  The contrast between the treatment of Sonia Sotomayor on the one hand, and Miguel Estrada, Clarence Thomas and even Michael Steele on the other, perfectly illustrates this point.

Opposition to the appointment of Clarence Thomas from the left was both bitter and racial.  They were apparently not so impressed with compelling life stories in 1991, despite the fact that Clarence Thomas rose from absolute poverty, his hometown lacking sewage and paved roads. Having been raised by an illiterate grandfather in Savannah, Georgia, Thomas often witnessed the debilitating impact of racism first hand.  He overcame these obstacles thanks to the ideas of hard work and perseverance instilled in him by his grandfather.  Did these facts lead liberals to conclude that Thomas had "wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey," as President Obama said of Sotomayer? Hardly.  Obama stated during the campaign that he would not have nominated Thomas.  

At the time of Thomas' nomination, Julian Bond penned a Washington Post editorial to explain opposition to what would be only the court's second black member from the NAACP, a group ostensibly designed to help advance black people like Thomas.  Bond rejected the idea that Thomas's experience qualified him for the seat and declared that the opposition,  "shouted 'no' to the notion that Thomas's commendable rise from poverty...[was] sufficient qualification for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court."  On the contrary, "his reward should be a well-lived life, not permanent appointment to the Supreme Court."[i]  Don't hold your breath waiting for similar conclusions about Sotomayor, despite the many questions raised, by Obama supporters no less, regarding her intellectual prowess on the court. And let's not even get into how often words like "Uncle Tom" were thrown about during Thomas' confirmation process.

Speaking of Uncle Toms, Michael Steele also found himself on the wrong end of the identity politics agenda when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006.  In a demonstration of liberal tolerance, Steele was pelted with Oreo cookies, supposedly signifying his status as black on the outside and white on the inside.  Maryland democrats explicitly condoned these and other racial attacks on the grounds that being black and conservative justifies a response of racism and hatred.[ii]

The most shocking case, however, is that of Miguel Estrada.  Estrada was nominated by President Bush for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a position he was, by most accounts, more than qualified for.  Estrada graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was also editor of the Harvard Law Review, a post that would later be highly touted on Obama's thin Presidential resume.  In addition to time spent in private practice, Estrada went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and then joined the Department of Justice during the Clinton Administration as an Assistant to the Solicitor General.

In 2001, President Bush made the Estrada appointment to the Court of Appeals.  The democratic response was apocalyptic, and Estrada was eventually forced to withdraw after 2 years of stonewalling and filibusters.  Thanks to a slew of leaked memos between democratic Senators and liberal interest groups, we now know the despicable motives behind this opposition: Estrada was a Hispanic who might one day be appointed to the Supreme Court, and by a Republican, no less.  One memo highlights that Estrada was "especially dangerous" in part because he "is Latino." In the twisted world of identity politics, advancement of minority groups is only acceptable when it's made through the appropriate political party, namely the democrats.  Conservative minorities are not afforded the same benefits of identity politics as liberal minorities, because they are a threat to the condescending notion that minorities may only think and vote democratic.

Naturally, Estrada's opposition had to come up with better reasons than blatant racism to publicly oppose a candidate even they admit in the memo was "clearly an intelligent lawyer."  In their "talking points" section, they justified opposition on the grounds that he "has serious temperament problems," and is a "right-wing zealot." This last line of attack is somewhat baffling given the repeated claims that he "has virtually no paper trail." And far from being the asset touted with Sonia Sotomayor, Estrada's "compelling life story" was dismissed as evidence of nothing more than "affirmative action."  It's hard to imagine the uproar if a similar statement were to be made about Sotomayor today. 

The different treatment of Sotomayor and other minorities by the proponents of identity politics is puzzling only when we make the mistake of taking them at their word that they seek merely to advance historically disadvantaged groups.  But when the cloak is removed, we see that the real objective is to advance the Democrat Party and the leftist agenda.  Perhaps in this small way Dr. King's dream finally has been realized: those standing in the way of liberal democrats will be subjected to the abusive politics of personal destruction regardless of race or creed. 

Much has been made of Sotomayor's statements that Latina women can be expected to make better judicial decisions than white males.  While it's true that the statement is inherently racist, though not of the hateful sort that stains America's past, the debate to date has mostly missed the larger problem: her statement reveals a judicial philosophy that elevates personal preferences over adherence to the letter of the law.  That we are presently mired in a discussion of the former at the expense of the latter is a testament to the destructive power of identity politics.  It is even more disappointing that a President uniquely positioned to transcend such old, tired debates of the past has instead chosen to perpetuate them for political gain.

Brian Garst blogs at Conservative Compendium.

  • 1. [i] Julian Bond, "My Case Against Clarence Thomas; "His reward should be a well-lived life, not permanent appointment to the Supreme Court."," The Washington Post, September 8, 1991.
  • 1. [ii] S.A. Miller, "'Party trumps race' for Steele foes; Democrats condone 'Uncle Tom,' Oreo attacks," The Washington Times, November 2, 2005.