The GOP's got some 'splainin' to do on race

Coburn makes Ricky Ricardo joke while NAACP-basher Sessions is "troubled" by Sotomayor's views. Are they serious?

By Joan Walsh
Published July 15, 2009 9:16PM (UTC)
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Is this a great country, or what? Even though Alabama's Jeff Sessions was blocked from a federal judgeship because of kooky statements about the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan, he could still go on to become a U.S. senator, and lead a racially tinged charge against the first Latina Supreme Court nominee. Equal opportunity, indeed!

I thought that Sessions' bullying and blundering in the first two days of the Sonia Sotomayor hearings might get the GOP to ask him to hide his light under a bushel for a bit, but there he was on Wednesday, holding a quick press conference in the hearing break to announce he continues to be "troubled" by Sotomayor's views on race, as if there was any doubt about that.


Not to be outdone by Sessions, though, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn shamed himself with an unbelievable reference to Desi Arnaz's ancient Cuban stereotype, Ricky Ricardo, husband of Lucille Ball on "I Love Lucy." During a surreal exchange on gun rights, in which the theoretical example was what might happen to Sotomayor if she (wrongly, illegally, but maybe understandably) got a gun and shot Coburn, the right-wing senator told her, "You'd have a lot of 'splainin' to do," referring to Arnaz's refrain when Lucy got in trouble with one of her crazy schemes.

It should be shocking that in 2009, a U.S. senator would be inspired to relate to an eminent jurist who happens to be Puerto Rican with half-century-old Latino stereotypes (as well as a sort of sexist comparison to wacky Lucy) but after these last few days, it isn't shocking. The way Republicans have shellacked Sotomayor over her "wise Latina" remarks shows they really, really want to be the party of aggrieved white men. No others need apply.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who ought to know better, hectored Sotomayor on the issue (after she'd already said her choice of words was "bad," and had already committed herself umpteen times to judicial objectivity). In what seemed to be a poorly veiled reference to Sessions, whose bid for a judgeship was derailed by the controversy over his NAACP and KKK remarks, he pompously and condescendingly asked Sotomayor whether if she got a do-over on a poorly chosen statement on race, white guys should too?


GRAHAM: If Lindsey Graham said that I will make a better senator than X, because of my experience as a Caucasian male makes me better able to represent the people of South Carolina, and my opponent was a minority, it would make national news, and it should.

….Others could not remotely come close to that statement and survive. Whether that's right or wrong, I think that's a fact. Does that make sense to you?

SOTOMAYOR: It does. And I would hope that we've come in America to the place where we can look at a statement that could be misunderstood, and consider it in the context of the person's life.

I said soon after President Obama nominated Sotomayor that she would almost certainly have to walk back her "wise Latina" comment, and that she probably should. I think that we need new ways to talk about race, given that what used to be self-evident observations about minority oppression can sound tin-eared and maybe even threatening to some white people in the era of the first black president and the most diverse Cabinet ever.

Still, my Caucasian certainty about our new era of race relations, as whites become a minority group, has been shaken watching the way Republicans have treated Sotomayor in these three days -- as an exotic, hot-tempered curiosity who isn't quite like the rest of us, and whose 17 years of legal rulings matter far less than the words she uses to encourage minority law students. These three days show we haven't come that far at all.

I can't say it any better than Mike Madden, who's live-blogging the Sotomayor hearings today: "So far, it's been remarkable to watch the GOP bash Sotomayor for saying she'd have empathy with some people because of her background and life experience, and also bash her for not having empathy with the firefighters in the Ricci case."


I'm confident Sotomayor will survive her grilling, but seriously, with leadership like this, the GOP might not survive as a national party. 

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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