A Summer of Race Talk Gone Bad

All the conversations we had about race this summer have not turned out well.

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Judge Sonia Sotomayor is the first Latina Supreme Court justice. The Cambridge police dropped the charges against Professor Henry “Skip” Gates, an action supported by the mounting evidence that he was the subject of a false and racially charged arrest.

But without a doubt, this has been a bad summer for conversations on race. It began with the nomination and hearings for Judge Sotomayor to be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. As soon as the first Latina was nominated, accusations were hurled, stereotyping the nominee as intellectually dull and temperamental. Then for good measure, Republicans added the charge that the nominee was racist. Her now famous “wise Latina” comments—part of the judge’s thoughtful and candid discussion of how judges are shaped by their backgrounds—were held out as evidence that Judge Sotomayor would be biased on the bench in favor of Latinos. The discussion around the judge’s confirmation hearings focused on pushing back against these baseless characterizations. Judge Sotomayor’s observations about how personal experiences may affect how a judge views the law could have opened a productive discussion about the importance of racial and gender diversity in our courts, or even a thoughtful and more subtle conversation about judging that moved away from the facile image of judges as “umpires” who merely “call balls and strikes”—a concept advanced by John G. Roberts Jr. at his confirmation hearings to become chief justice.

Instead, Judge Sotomayor’s speeches were used by Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee to create a bizarre and ugly tableau, in which the all-white, all male, Southern- dominated Republican contingent on the committee sought to brand the first Latina Supreme Court nominee as racist. That Judge Sotomayor had first been nominated to the bench by a Republican president, that she was a former prosecutor, that the more than 3,000 cases in which she’d participated as a federal judge over 17 years showed her to be a careful, centrist jurist were all irrelevant. The Republicans were lost in their retro moment.

“Are you prejudiced against the white people of the South?” segregationist Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland asked then-nominee Thurgood Marshall at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1967. Forty-two years later, the question—over and over again—was virtually the same for Judge Sotomayor. The conversation in the confirmation hearings, and in this week’s debate, as Republican senators stood seriatim to denounce the Latina nominee as an enemy of gun rights, racial equality and national sovereignty has been neither honest nor illuminating. Instead, in the upside-down world of this summer’s racial exchange, a fine, highly accomplished jurist was subjected to an obscene distortion of her life's work.


Then, halfway through the summer, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrived home from trip to China to find the door to his home in Cambridge, Mass., jammed shut. The rest, as they say, is history. Within half an hour, Gates found himself shackled and arrested for having the temerity to speak harshly to a police officer in his own home. What could have been the start of a conversation about structural racial discrimination in the criminal justice system had been reduced by the end of last week to a personal sharing moment, largely because of President Barack Obama’s impromptu characterization of the arrest as “stupid” at the end of a news conference. To tamp down some of the furor caused by the reaction to his remarks, the president proposed what became known as the “beer summit” in which Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, would sit down and have a beer with the president (the vice president joined them as well).