Does Sotomayor debate show America is afraid of race?

The confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor is going to be ugly, and for no reason whatsoever except that race is still a third-rail issue. If she were a white woman, it would be a completely different confirmation process, and that says a lot about how far we’ve come on race since the civil rights movement.

First, let’s make one thing clear. Sotomayor will be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, barring some new revelation that she waterboards puppies in her basement. But what’s not clear is how much dirt will be flung in her eyes on her way to that esteemed court. If the drooling Republican attack dogs, such as Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, are any indication, then she will need to take a long shower before donning her robes.

Sotomayor’s big foot-in-mouth moment came on UC-Berkeley in 2001, at a lecture nobody noticed or cared about outside the law school until now. At her lecture she said: “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.” This single quote has outraged Limbaugh and his many empty vessels, giving them the ammunition they need to call her a “reverse racist.” She hates white people; it’s obvious, isn’t it?

Would she have to endure this barrage of criticism if she had used the word “more informed” instead of the value-laden word “better”? Even with the more accurate word choice, those who have their own agenda by lighting the identity politics fire would have found some other questionable phrase to pounce on. This just happens to be their tastiest red meat of the week.

Sotomayor believes what every scholar of the Supreme Court and most thinking people understand: the person behind the robe matters. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., notable white guy and Supreme Court justice, wrote that: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Sotomayor and Holmes on one side, Gingrich on the other — you make the call. Even Gingrich came to his senses Wednesday — he said calling Sotomayor a racist was “too strong and direct.”

But the fact remains that there are millions who believe that there are sweeping affirmative action conspiracies to deny white people their rightful jobs and promotions, and they see Sotomayor as part of the conspiracy.

So, why does the media allow these kinds of charges to dominate news coverage? It’s an indication of a societal pathology, an unhealthy squeamishness about race that has kept us at arms length from one another.

I’m tired of all the claims that we’ve made progress on the racial front, because I see none. Yes, we have a black president, proving that more than 50 percent of the voting population in the U.S. isn’t racist. Let’s not strain our arms patting ourselves on the back for that one: We went for the guy who wasn’t George Bush III.

Yes, our black president made an incredibly thoughtful speech on race last year while he was a candidate. We all watched, got a little tingly inside, thought about it for a day or two and then got back to business as usual. I haven’t heard Obama bring it up since.

We’ve heard candidates  implore us to have “open dialogue” on race without telling us how that dialogue would sound. Are we supposed to have spontaneous gatherings at random times to share our feelings and life stories? I’m not sure how those dialogues happen, except on an individual level. Either you’re someone who decides when you go to college that you’re going to make some friends outside your usual circle (and usual skin color), or you’re not.

It was inevitable that Sotomayor would be the “Latina judge.” After all, she’s the first non-white woman nominee, and that’s big news. But it’s not inevitable that her confirmation hearing must be all about affirmative action decisions and whether she hates white people. I guarantee that’s about all you will hear, because there are some who stand to gain politically (and boost their personal fortunes) by playing the “scared whitey” card. They know about our race hang-up, so they know this play will work.

I’m looking forward to the day when those who blithely throw around accusations of reverse racism each time a minority gains a position of power are laughed out of Washington and ignored by the press.