Judge Sonia Sotomayor with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)
While many liberals suggest that with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency the United States has become a post-racial society, many conservatives have now taken the opposite position, prompted by the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, that racism is alive and well in the republic.(1) According to many right-wing pundits and politicians extending from Rush Limbaugh to Newt Gingrich, Judge Sotomayor is a "racist" and a "bigot" because of a largely decontextualized 32-word quote abstracted from a speech she gave in 2001 in which she stated: "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." Gingrich ignored the broader context in which the quote appeared, arguing for critical reason over biography, going so far as to suggest that it was symptomatic of a new type of racism, exclaiming in Twitter-like fashion, "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." All of this saber-rattling rhetoric about the emergence of a new kind of racism, which insists rather ironically that whites rather than people of color are the real victims of personal and institutional racism, does more than suggest a kind of historical amnesia that actually rewrites the meaning of racism. It also points to a long-standing fear among many conservatives that diversity rather the bigotry is the real threat to democracy.
What the ongoing attack on Judge Sotomayor suggests is that the public morality of American life and social policy regarding matters of racial justice are increasingly subject to a politics of denial. Denial in this case is not merely about the failure of public memory or the refusal to know, but an active ongoing attempt on the part of many conservatives to rewrite the discourse of race so as to deny its valence as a force for discrimination and exclusion either by translating it as a threat to American culture or relegating it to the language of the private sphere. The idea of race and the conditions of racism have real political effects and eliding them only makes those effects harder to recognize. And yet, the urgency to recognize how language is used to name, organize, order and categorize matters of race not only has academic value, it also provides a location from which to engage difference and the relationship between the self and the other and between the public and private. In addition, the language of race is important because it strongly affects political and policy agendas as well. One only has to think about the effects of Charles Murray's book, "Losing Ground," on American welfare policies in the 1980s.(2) But language is more than a mode of communication or a symbolic practice that produces real effects, it is also a site of contestation and struggle
The charge that Judge Sotomayor is a racist suggests something about the changing vocabulary about race and racial injustice that has to be both critically understood and politically engaged. In fact, there is something called a new racism and it has been brilliantly explored by a number of writers including David Theo Goldberg, Elizabeth Ansell, Howard Winant and Manning Marable, among others, though not in the way conservatives are using the term. Unlike the old racism, which defined racial difference in terms of fixed biological categories organized hierarchically, the new racism operates in various guises proclaiming, among other things, race-neutrality, asserting culture as a marker of racial difference or marking race as a private matter. Unlike the crude racism with its biological referents and pseudo-scientific legitimations, buttressing its appeal to white racial superiority, the new racism cynically recodes itself within the vocabulary of the civil rights movement, invoking the language of Martin Luther King Jr. to argue that individuals should be judged by the "content of their character" and not by the color of their skin. What is crucial about the new racism is that it demands an updated analysis of how racist practices work through the changing nature of language and other modes of representation. One of the most sanitized and yet pervasive forms of the new racism is evident in the language of color-blindness and the ideology of privatization. Within this approach, it is argued that racial conflict and discrimination is a thing of the past and that race has no bearing on an individual's or group's location or standing in contemporary American society. Color-blindness does not deny the existence of race, but the claim that race is responsible for alleged injustices that reproduce group inequalities, privilege whites, negatively impacts on economic mobility, the possession of social resources and the acquisition of political power. Put differently, inherent in the logic of color-blindness is the central assumption that race has no valence as a marker of identity or power when factored into the social vocabulary of everyday life and the capacity for exercising individual and social agency. In an era "free" of racism, race becomes a matter of taste, lifestyle or heritage, but has nothing to do with politics, legal rights, educational access or economic opportunities. Moreover, as politics becomes more racialized, the discourse about race becomes more privatized. Veiled by a denial of how racial histories accrue political, economic and cultural weight to the social power of whiteness, color-blindness and the privatization of racism deletes the relationship between racial differences and power and in doing so reinforces whiteness as the arbiter of value for judging difference against a normative notion of homogeneity.(3) For advocates of color-blindness, race as a political signifier is conveniently denied, relegated to the historical past, or defined merely as an individual prejudice or simply a matter of individualized choices, allowing many conservatives to ignore racism as a corrosive force for expanding the dynamics of ideological and structural inequality throughout society.(4) Color-blindness is a convenient ideology for enabling whites to ignore the degree to which race is tangled up with asymmetrical relations of power, functioning as a potent force for patterns of exclusion and discrimination including. but not limited to, housing, mortgage loans, health care, schools and the criminal justice system. This is the issue missing from the current debate about the new racism being put forth by Gingrich and others.
If one effect of color-blindness functions is to deny racial hierarchies, another consequence is that it offers whites not only the belief that America is now a level playing field, but that the success that whites enjoy relative to minorities of color is largely due to individual determination, a strong work ethic, high moral values and a sound investment in education. Not only does color-blindness offer up a highly racialized (though paraded as race-transcendent) notion of agency, but it also provides an ideological space free of guilt, self-reflection and political responsibility, despite the fact that blacks have a disadvantage in almost all areas of social life: housing, jobs, education, income levels, mortgage lending and basic everyday services.(5) In a society marked by profound racial and class inequalities, it is difficult to believe that character and merit - as color-blindness advocates would have us believe - are the prime determinants for social and economic mobility and a decent standard of living. The relegation of racism and its effects in the larger society to the realm of private beliefs, values, and behavior does little to explain a range of overwhelming realities–such as soaring black unemployment, the stepped-up resegregation of American schools and the growing militarization and lock down status of public education through the widespread use of zero tolerance policies, whose most egregious effects are on poor minority youth.(6) Or the fact that African-American males live on average six years less than their white counterparts. It is worth noting that nothing challenges the myth that America has become a color-blind, post-racist nation more than the racialization of the criminal justice system since the late 1980s. As the sociologist Loic Wacquant has observed, the expansion of the prison-industrial complex represents a "de facto policy of 'carceral affirmative action' towards African-Americans."(7) This is born out by the fact that while American prisons house over 2.3 million inmates, "roughly half of them are black even though African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the nation's population.... According to the Justice Policy Institute, there are now more black men behind bars than in college in the United States. One in ten of the world's prisoners is an African-American male."(8)
As one of the most powerful ideological and institutional factors for deciding how identities are categorized and power, material privileges and resources distributed, race represents an essential political category for examining the relationship between justice and a democratic society. What the Sotomayor debate suggests is that far from being relegated to the past, racism in its various forms can be resurrected for both attacking minorities of color and for appropriating victim status for whites, while suggesting that people of color are the "real" racists. How else to explain Newt Gingrich's charge that Judge Sotomayor is a "Latina woman racist" or Karl Rove's charge that she is "not necessarily" smart, resurrecting elements of genetic racism. Rather than simply defend Sotomayor against such racist charges, it may be time for progressives and others to take the debate about racism a step further and engage in a real dialogue about the historical legacy of the new racism and how it functions in American society, particularly as it seeks to suggest that the main victims of racism in its various rhetorical and institutional guises are white men.
Bob Herbert has recently responded to the attacks on Judge Sotomayor by arguing that:
Here's the thing. Suddenly these hideously pompous and self-righteous white males of the right are all concerned about racism. They're so concerned that they're fully capable of finding it in places where it doesn't for a moment exist. Not just finding it, but being outraged by it to the point of apoplexy. Oh, they tell us, this racism is a bad thing! Are we supposed to not notice that these are the tribunes of a party that rose to power on the filthy waves of racial demagoguery.... Where were the howls of outrage at this strategy that was articulated by Lee Atwater as follows: "By 1968, you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff."(9)
Herbert is only partly right on this issue. The right-wing attack on Sotomayor is about more than "the howling of a fading species." It is about how racism takes on different forms in different historical contexts and the need for it to be challenged critically and politically. Of course, Herbert is correct in suggesting that the conservative appropriation of the new racism is not just disingenuous but hypocritical, and that even a minor lesson in history reveals the bigotry behind the strategy. But he is remiss in not suggesting that we actually take up the discourse of the new racism and do it in ways that give it real meaning and substance, so it can be both easily recognized and politically challenged in terms not set by conservatives.
(1) For a critical summary of the ongoing racist and sexist smear campaign waged against Judge Sotomayor, see Faiz Shakir, "Right-Wing Hate Machine Launches Vicious Campaign of Racist and Sexist Attacks On Sotomayor," AlterNet (May 30, 2009). Online: www.altenet.org/story/140248.
(3) This issue is taken up brilliantly in David Theo Goldberg's, "The Racial State" (Malden, MA: Blackwell Books, 2002) and David Theo Goldberg's, "The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism" (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
(5) For specific figures in all areas of life, see Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, "White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era" (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), especially the chapter "White Supremacy in the Post-Civil Rights Era," pp. 89-120.
(8) Paul Street, "Mass Incarceration and Racist State Priorities at Home and Abroad," DissidentVoice (March 11, 2003), pp. 6-7 Available on line at http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles2/Street_MassIncarceration.htm. See also, Jennifer Warren, "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008" (Washington, DC: The PEW Center on the States, 2008).