Is "racist" the new "liberal" -- the new hot-button word with which those on the Right can try to gain tactical advantage over the Left?
One might be led to think so given that both Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich hurled the R-word out against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Rush threw in "reverse racist," to boot -- which he also called Barack Obama. Former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo chimed in and equated Sotomayor's affiliation with the National Council of La Raza with being a member of the Klu Klux Klan.
In a sense, this is a "what's good for for the goose is good for the gander" moment. Democrats have been attacking Republican court nominees with the "racist/sexist" charge for decades. Robert Bork's nomination collapsed after Ted Kennedy's famous "Robert Bork's America" speech that claimed the judge would love to see women forced into back-alley abortions.
So, it's not surprising that conservatives now see a chance to demonize a Democratic nominee with some over-heated rhetoric. The fact that the president making the pick is African-American, the nominee is Latina -- and one of her controversial cases involves alleged reverse discrimination -- makes this an even more salient line of attack.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- full disclosure, this author worked for him a decade ago -- even jumped on the favorite social networking bandwagon to Tweet that the judge should withdraw because of racist statements.
"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," Mr. Gingrich wrote on Twitter, which he uses regularly to discuss politics or promote his television appearances.
Mr. Gingrich followed his initial tweet a few minutes later with: "White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw." He gained more than 1,000 followers after the remarks.
The line to which Gingrich refers comes from a speech Sotomayor gave in 2001 to a group of Latino law students at Berkeley. The exact line was: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
It may not win any awards for eloquence, but the broader argument that she makes -- that it is impossible for a judge (or, arguably, anyone) to completely divorce one's experiences when making a decision -- is a reasonable one. Sotomayor concludes, however, that it is better to be aware of all of those biases -- or baggage, one might say -- when bringing them to the task at hand, rather than pretending they don't exist. And, yes, that means working within the law and the Constitution to come to a correct decision.
With a bit of ethnic flavoring, the problematic line, perhaps not felicitously delivered, essentially comes down to the advice of "not forgetting where you came from."
That's a fair way of reading her statement -- in context, hardly racist. However, that's not to say that her view on how much of a role experience might/would/should play in decision-making is a more than reasonable line of inquiry for a Republican -- or any -- senator to pursue in confirmation hearings. At the same time, it would also be educational to explore Sotomayor's dissent view in Pappas vs. Giuliani. There she took a rather broad view of the First Amendment rights of a New York city employee fired for racist statement written off the job.
Meanwhile, given how much he's been misquoted -- and quoted out of context -- Newt might want to pause before hitting the "racist" button. This is especially true given how much he's been spending time of late with one Rev. Al Sharpton who, it can be charitably said, has some racial baggage of his own.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at