Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




June 4, 2009

You have to admire the ability of our conservative friends—don’t you?—to continually create these rice-calling-cotton-pale moments in order to deflect attention from their own transgressions and, thus, to avoid criticism.

It is always fascinating how conservatives have tagged liberalism with the smear of “political correctness,” that doctrine of pushing a certain party-line way of thinking, to the active denigration and exclusion—by any means necessary—of all others. Liberalism, after all—as opposed to progressivism—tends almost always to look inward first for internal flaws in its thinking, taking criticism to heart and conceding that the other guy might, after all, have a point that needs listening to before rejecting. It is conservatism that believes it holds doctrines writ by the hands of God and Mr. Jefferson, and in our collective lifetime, the most glaring misuse of “political correctness” was the McCarthyist and House Unamerican Activities Committee anti-Communism witchhunts and purges, for which the nation’s conservative right-wing was the driving force.

And, of course, it must be noted that political correctness, like violence, is as American as apple pie, sometimes working interchangeably. Much of the violence of the American Revolution came not between blue-coat and red-coat armies, but by American patriots burning out, tarring-and-feathering, and lynching their neighbors who professed loyalty to the English king. Lynching is most commonly associated with white terrorist mob murders of Southern African-Americans in the 19th century, but the term goes back a hundred years before, and is most often attributed to the practices either one or another Virginian named Lynch.

The April 12, 1874 edition of the Lynchburg News pegged Colonel Charles Lynch of Staunton, in the Shenandoah Valley, as the American originator of “lynching”, writing that:

“Col. Charles Lynch was an officer in the army of the American Revolution. … During the Revolutionary War, the country on James River and on the Roanoke about the Blue Ridge and mountain passes was harassed by a lawless band of Tories and desperadoes, and their depredations at one time extended into the region round about Lynchburg. The case required a species of operation adapted to cure the evil. Col. Lynch … organized and took the lead of a strong body of determined patriots—men of moral character and commanding infection and scoured the country night and day. They took many of the desperadoes, gave them a summary trial, at which Col. Lynch sat as judge; impaneled a jury, and, on conviction, executed the punishment in a proper manner.” (“On The Death Of Charles Lynch III”)

While the tree of liberty needs to be watered from time to time by the blood of tyrants, as Mr. Jefferson famously wrote, America’s tree of freedom of thought was watered in its infancy in part by the blood of colonial neighbors who dared to think another way than liberty’s defenders. Thus was American political correctness born.

Still, even though there is a tired and threadbare quality to this old conservative call for orthodoxy, there are some aspects of the recent right-wing attacks on Federal Appeals Court Judge Sotomayor that deserve some special comment, just to remind ourselves what is really going on here.

Ms. Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican-American ancestry and is President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat of retiring Justice David Souter, has come under fire by some conservative commentators for views Ms. Sotomayor expressed during a 2001 “Raising The Bar” symposium at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. In her speech, Ms. Sotomayor suggested at one point that a Latina woman might make a better judge than a white male.

That brought out immediate howls from the loud guns of the right.

“So here you have a racist,” conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program. “You might want to soften that and you might want to say a reverse racist. And the libs of course say that minorities cannot be racists because they don't have the power to implement their racism. Well, those days are gone because reverse racists certainly do have the power to implement their power. Obama is the greatest living example of a reverse racist, and now he's appointed one … Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court.” ("GOP Must Go to Mat on Sotomayor to Tell Real Story of Barack Obama", May 26, 2009)

“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,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote on Twitter. “White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw.”

On FoxNews Sunday, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham declined to characterize Ms. Sotomayor’s statements as racist, but just wrong.

“She said was that based on her life experiences, that she thought a Latina woman—somebody with her background—would be a better judge than a guy like me: a white guy from South Carolina,” Mr. Graham said. “And it is troubling, and it's inappropriate. I hope she will apologize. And if I had said something like that—or someone with my background and profile--we wouldn't be talking about this nomination going forward. … I do know this: that statement is not about talking about her life experiences, it's getting from her life experiences a superiority based on those experiences versus somebody else in society. And I don't want that kind of person being a judge in my case, but I don't think she’s a racist. I think she should be proud of what she's accomplished in life. But to lead to the conclusion that all the hardships she has gone through makes her better than me is inappropriate.” ("Graham Critical Of Sotomayor But Willing To Hear Her Out" The Greenville (SC) News, May 31, 2009)

Given the charges, it seems appropriate to quote exactly what Ms. Sotomayor actually said in the offending 2001 passage.

In a long speech to a law school symposium pointedly entitled “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation,” Ms. Sotomayor said that “(It has been) pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women.” Ms. Sotomayor went on to say that “Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, … our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice (Sandra Day) O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. … I am … not so sure that I agree with the statement. … 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.”

The entire Sotomayor UC Berkeley speech should be read in its entirety to understand the context and the caveats. But it is clear from the remarks cherrypicked from her long speech that the judge was saying that contrary to Ms. O’Connor’s statement that gender plays no factor in judgment, the victims of discrimination stand a somewhat better chance of understanding and coming to a decision that overcomes the effects of that discrimination.

Is that true?

Myself, I tend to think that it is, but I won’t argue that here and, in any event, that is not the point. The point, I believe, is that this is an arguable assertion—that discrimination victims have a somewhat clearer view of the nature of discrimination—and at the very least deserves to be a legitimate part of our national political discussion. It is not in part because women and members of such national minorities as African-Americans and Latinos are pointedly reminded, every step along the way, that if they want to advance to the highest levels of national service, certain views are off limits.

During last year’s Democratic primary campaign, for example, then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, told a Milwaukee rally that “People in this country are ready for change and hungry for a different kind of politics and … for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Few African-Americans I know of took issue with this statement, it being such a widespread sentiment in the African-American community that whatever pride one has in America is tempered, always, both by the knowledge of America’s anti-Black history and the residue of anti-Black racism still present. It recalls the famous W.E.B. DuBois line from “The Souls Of Black Folk” about this African-American divided duality, that “One ever feels his twoness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Rather than being seen as a rather commonplace statement of African-American feelings, Ms. Obama’s statement was widely criticized in newspaper columns and blog comments—how dare she say that she was not proud of America before her husband ran for President!—and the candidate’s wife was relegated to the background for a while, until the storm blew over.

The same was true for the firestorm over the speeches of Mr. Obama’s onetime mentor and pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who famously said that “The government gives [citizens of African descent] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law and then wants us to sing God Bless America. Naw, naw, naw. Not God Bless America. God Damn America! That’s in the Bible. For killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating us citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is Supreme.” Again, it was a sentiment you could hear in many pews and from many pulpits in African-American churches across the country. But for that, Mr. Obama was forced to disavow both the Wright speech and Mr. Wright himself, eventually quit the church where he and his family had been longtime members, and where Mr. Wright had served as pastor.

For most of the years that America has been in existence, the doors to power have been closed to women and to many national minorities. Those doors are now opening—forced open, one might say—but with the requirement that these previously-unrepresented groups leave the essence of themselves—the thoughts and views and feelings of the groups from whence they come—outside. That is how we ended up with Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. He is African-American, yes, but any ties of Mr. Thomas to the major currents of African-American thought—whether progressive, conservative, or grounded in African-American history—are difficult to discern. It’s a form of political correctness that would make the end of halls-of-power discrimination no victory at all, since the ones finally allowed to come in would end up being no different than the ones who have been inside all along. And that, of course, is the point of it.

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