fromGlobal Issues in ContextIntheheatofhisprimarybattlelastyear,BarackObamabemoaned”identitypolitics”inAmerica,callingit”anenormousdistraction”fromtherealissuesoftheday.ManythoughthisinaugurationasthefirstAfrican-Americanpresidentthisyearwassupposedtousherinanewpost-racialage.Butfourmonthslater,identitypoliticsisbackwithavengeance.ApresidentwhothesedaysreferstohisbackgroundobliquelywhenhedoesatallchoseaSupremeCourtcandidatewhoopenlyembraceshers.Criticstookissuewithherpaststatementsandcalledhera”reverseracist.”Andthecapitalonceagainhaspolarizedalongfamiliarlines.TheselectionofJudgeSoniaSotomayorbroughttheseissuestotheforeagainforseveralreasons.Mr.Obama’sselectionprocesswasgearedfromthebeginningtowardfindingafemaleorminoritycandidate,orboth.OnlyoneoftheninevettedcandidateswasanAnglomale,andallfourfinalistsheinterviewedwerewomen.OneofJudgeSotomayor’smostprominentcasesinvolvedanaffirmative-actionclaim.AndhercommentonherLatinabackgroundshapingherjurisprudenceprovidedfodderforopponents.”Hedidn’tpickapost-racialcandidate,”saidAbigailThernstrom,aleadingconservativescholaronracerelationsandtheauthorofabookcalled”VotingRights–AndWrongs:TheElusiveQuestforRaciallyFairElections.””She’saquintessentialspokesmanforracialspoils.”
TheWhiteHousearguedthatJudgeSotomayor’sopponentswerepickingthroughherpastremarkstowieldherwordsagainsther.”WhattheelectionofObamasaidispeoplewanttomoveforwardratherthanbackwards,andIthinkthat’sstilltrue,”saidDavidAxelrod,thepresident’ssenioradviser.”Americansaresavvierandmorethoughtfulthansomeofthedemagoguesgivethemcredit.”TheSupremeCourtseemstopromotethissortofdiscussionmorethananyotherforuminpubliclife,perhapsbecauseithassofewseatsandtheycomeopensorarely.Ofthe110peoplewhohaveservedonthecourt,onlyfourwerenotwhitemales.Everypresidentoverthelastgenerationhasatleastflirtedwiththetemptationtonamea”first”–oratleastasecondorthird.AidessaidthatdespiteMr.Obama’sownlow-keyapproachtoethnicity,namingthefirstHispanictotheSupremeCourtheldgreatappealforthepresident,thoughtheysaiditwasonlyoneofmanyfactors.Mr.Obamahaswrittenabest-sellingbookabouthisrootsasthesonofawhitemotherandblackfatherandwellunderstoodthepoliticalpowerofhisbeingthefirstAfrican-AmericanpresidentjustasheunderstandsthepowerofthefirstHispanicjustice.Hehasusedsymbolstocelebratethehistoryofhisascension,likeinvitingcivilrightsfigurestohisinauguration,includingtheTuskegeeAirmen,theelite,segregatedWorldWarIIcorps.HehasalsobroughtamorediverseteamandsetofvisitorstotheWhiteHouse.Butsincehismajorspeechonraceduringtheprimarieswhenhedisavowedtheinflammatoryrhetoricofhisminister,hehasavoidedovertdiscussionoftheissue.TheraretimeshereferstohisbackgroundareusuallysubtleandframedasamessageaboutAmericaasaplaceofopportunity.Sincebecomingpresident,hehasnottalkedmuchaboutdiscriminationordisparities.JudgeSotomayor,bycontrast,hasmoreopenlyaddressedherdifferenceswithotherjudges.”Obamahassoughttotranscendethnicdifferencesandhasemphasizedhisownpost-racialidentitytoappealtoasmanyAmericansaspossible,”saidWilliamBurck,adeputyWhiteHousecounselunderPresidentGeorgeW.Bush.”ItseemsthatJudgeSotomayorconsidersherethnicitytobeacentralpartofwhosheis,notjustasaprivatecitizenbutalsoasalawyerandajudge.”MuchofthatassessmentstemsnotjustfromJudgeSotomayor’smembershipingroupsthatbroughtdiscriminationclaimsorherrulingagainstwhitefirefightersinaNewHavenaffirmativeactioncase,butfromasinglespeechshegaveatthelawschoolattheUniversityofCalifornia,Berkeley,in2001.Thespeechaddressedtherolepersonalbackgroundsplayinrenderingdecisionsandconcludedthat”ourgenderandnationaloriginsmayandwillmakeadifferenceinourjudging.””IwouldhopethatawiseLatinawomanwiththerichnessofherexperienceswouldmoreoftenthannotreachabetterconclusionthanawhitemalewhohasn’tlivedthatlife,”shesaid.
Mr.Obamaandhisadvisersknewofherremarkswhenhemadetheselection,buttheyconcludedthatanyofthefinalistswouldhavesomequotationoractionthatwouldattractcriticism.Theyrejectthenotionthattheyfosteredidentitypoliticsthroughaselectionprocessfocusedonaddingdiversitytothecourt,notingthatJudgeSotomayorhasmoreexperienceonthebenchthananycurrentjusticedidwhennominated.”Yes,Ithinkhethinksthere’svalueinhavingaSupremeCourtthathasadiversityofexperienceanddiversityofpointsofview,”Mr.Axelrodsaidofthepresident,”butthatwasnottheprincipalcriteriathatheapplied.Theprincipalcriteriaheappliedwas,isthepersonanexcellentjudge?”TheWhiteHousehasbeensomewhatsurprisedbytheintensityofthefocusonidentity,muchofitfannedbyround-the-clockcablecoverage.ThetalkshowhostRushLimbaughdeclaredJudgeSotomayora”reverseracist”anddescribedMr.Obamaas”anangrymanwithachiponhisshoulder.”NewtGingrich,theformerHousespeaker,wrotethatawhitemansayingthereversewouldhavetowithdrawsoa”Latinawomanracistshouldalsowithdraw.”Mr.Obamaandhisaidesrespondedbydenouncinghercriticswhilesayingshehadusedapoorchoiceofwords.”I’msureshewouldhaverestatedit,”Mr.ObamasaidonFriday.”Butifyoulookintheentiresweepoftheessaythatshewrote,what’sclearisthatshewassimplysayingthatherlifeexperienceswillgiveherinformationaboutthestrugglesandhardshipsthatpeoplearegoingthrough–thatwillmakeheragoodjudge.”TheWhiteHouseanditsliberalsupportersalsodugupquotesfromRepublican-appointedjustices,includingSamuelA.AlitoJr.,whosaidathisconfirmationhearingthathisimmigrantrootsplayedintohisconsiderationofcases.”Whenacasecomesbeforemeinvolving,let’ssay,someonewhoisanimmigrant–andwegetanawfullotofimmigrationcasesandnaturalizationcases,”hesaidatthehearing,”Ican’thelpbutthinkofmyownancestorsbecauseitwasn’tthatlongagowhentheywereinthatposition.”RepresentativeNydiaM.VelazquezofNewYork,aDemocratandchairwomanoftheCongressionalHispanicCaucus,said,”SohelpmeGod,Ijustdon’tknowwhatisdifferentbetweenwhathesaidandwhatshesaid.”Ms.Velazquezadded,”Ithinksomepeoplewanttocreateacommotionherethatscorespoliticalpoints.”TheWhiteHouseiscountingonthenotionthatwhenthepointsarecounted,itwillhavescoredmore.Mr.Obamawon67percentofHispanicvoteslastyear,accordingtoexitpolls,andhispoliticaladviserswouldliketolockdownalargeconstituencythatremainsinplaybetweenthetwoparties.Thecalculationinthepresident’scircleisthatRepublicanswillshootthemselvesbyattackingthefirstHispanicSupremeCourtnominee.”Iftherearecriticsouttherewhotrytoengageinsomekindofplayingthepoliticsofrace,they’regoingtodosoattheirownperilbecauseIthinkthecountryispastthat,”saidJoelBenenson,thepresident’spollster.Ms.Thernstrom,aRepublicanappointeetotheUnitedStatesCommissiononCivilRights,saidtherealquestionwaswhattheepisoderevealedaboutMr.Obama.Ishetheapostleofapost-racialsocietyoramoresubtleplayerinthecountry’sage-oldidentitypoliticsorsomethinginbetween?”Ithinkhe’sacomplicatedperson,”shesaid