The U.S. Senate confirmed Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the next member of the U.S. Supreme Court, and it’s first Latina Justice by a vote of 68-31.
Nine Republicans broke ranks and voted with 59 Democrats to confirm. The other 31 Republicans, whether intentionally or not, wound up ratifying the ugly, disingenuous attacks against Sotomayor that came from Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh and GOP members of the Judiciary Committee—who called Sotomayor, President Barack Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, an “affirmative action” pick and a “racist.”
Republicans—who preach that people of color advance with hard work and a good education—tried to tell her that her impeccable credentials and years of experience weren’t really the issue.
What they were really worried about was her attitude.
In one sense, Republicans did what the loyal opposition is supposed to by voting against Sotomayor. But they picked the wrong time and the wrong person. They tried to get their Bork moment using a nominee who a lot of people see as both a role model and a cool-as-hell single auntie. With the coming reality of a majority minority country working against them, Republicans boxed themselves in this time. They messed with Tia Sonia, and eventually they’ll pay the price.
During the confirmation process, GOP Senators hammered away at Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark hoping to trigger some kind of outburst or slip up that would have “proved” she was the biased, unqualified candidate they said she was—and if they could also get her to validate a particular stereotype by coming off as an aggrieved, hot-headed “minority,” even better for them.
But Obama nominated someone very much like himself—a leader of color who has spent a lifetime preparing for moments just like her Senate confirmation hearings, and insulating herself against the kind of glossy slurs that she faced, by fashioning a career by the book, and then never breaking her game face, no matter what the circumstances.
Ironically for Republicans, “minorities” like Sotomayor are on their way to becoming a political plurality—call it a “Sotomajority”—and the GOP’s lasting impression on this group will be that when one of them played by the rules, worked hard, and earned the pedigree that was supposed to make her acceptable to the white “majority,” she met with condescension rather than respect.
Establishment conservatives aren’t dealing with the parochial style of the civil rights generation of Latino and African American leadership anymore, and they haven’t adjusted to that yet. As NYU’s Arlene Davila describes, leaders like Obama and Sotomayor don’t just contribute “to their own group, but to the entire American society.” They also have the tools to appeal to the entire society. Until Republicans figure this out, they’ll have no way of making demographic change work to their advantage or finding a nexus between their issues and emerging constituencies like Latinos.
By deciding to portray Sotomayor as someone who didn’t earn her place at the top on her own, or who couldn’t apply the law fairly because she was Latina, Republicans got in their own way when they most needed to see what was already clear: Sotomayor isn’t their grandfather’s version of colored folk—she’s not “the help” and she was never going to “melt down” like Sen. Lindsey Graham (who ultimately voted for her) suggested she might. She’s people of color 2.0.
Conservative Latina commentator Linda Chavez, a former Ronald Reagan appointee, thinks that when the 2010 elections come around, “few Hispanic voters will remember or care” about this episode. But Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) predicted that the GOP vote would negatively impact Republican efforts to reach out to Latinos in the future, saying that it “sends a tough message to our community, and it's a message that will be viewed in the days ahead.”
Menendez added, "For the Hispanic community, while it is not monolithic, it is monolithic about Sonia Sotomayor."
UPDATE: Cuban American Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) resigned this morning. His last act as a U.S. Senator was voting as one of the nine Republicans to support Sotomayor for SCOTUS. No reports yet on whether or not the GOP Sotomayor vote tally influenced his decision to step down early, but it’s probably a safe bet that he wasn’t going to resign before he cast that vote.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.