The only real suspense in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is whether the Republican Party will persist in tying its fortunes to an anachronistic claim of white male exceptionalism and privilege.
Republicans’ outrage, both real and feigned, at Sotomayor’s musings about how her identity as a "wise Latina" might affect her judicial decisions is based on a flawed assumption: that whiteness and maleness are not themselves facets of a distinct identity. Being white and male is seen instead as a neutral condition, the natural order of things. Any "identity" — black, brown, female, gay, whatever — has to be judged against this supposedly "objective" standard.
Thus it is irrelevant if Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. talks about the impact of his background as the son of Italian immigrants on his rulings — as he did at his confirmation hearings — but unforgivable for Sotomayor to mention that her Puerto Rican family history might be relevant to her work. Thus it is possible for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to say with a straight face that heritage and experience can have no bearing on a judge’s work, as he posited in his opening remarks yesterday, apparently believing that the white male justices he has voted to confirm were somehow devoid of heritage and bereft of experience.
Of course that’s the standard by which the rest of us are measured. That’s why Obama’s "empathy" remark gave conservatives the vapors. (I’ll have more on that later.) At the time I remember saying that it seemed like only when a person of color was up for such a position were they required to set aside the background and experience, and swear that neither would in any way inform their rulings, policies, etc.
But, about Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Have you met him yet? You should.
Sessions had a lot to say about Obama’s Supreme Court pick, even before there was one. But then, he’s had a lot to say in general.
The New Republic posted an article back in 2002 that contained some real gems.
Sessions was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. The year before his nomination to federal court, he had unsuccessfully prosecuted three civil rights workers–including Albert Turner, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.–on a tenuous case of voter fraud. The three had been working in the "Black Belt" counties of Alabama, which, after years of voting white, had begun to swing toward black candidates as voter registration drives brought in more black voters. Sessions’s focus on these counties to the exclusion of others caused an uproar among civil rights leaders, especially after hours of interrogating black absentee voters produced only 14 allegedly tampered ballots out of more than 1.7 million cast in the state in the 1984 election. The activists, known as the Marion Three, were acquitted in four hours and became a cause c?l?bre. Civil rights groups charged that Sessions had been looking for voter fraud in the black community and overlooking the same violations among whites, at least partly to help reelect his friend Senator Denton.
On its own, the case might not have been enough to stain Sessions with the taint of racism, but there was more. Senate Democrats tracked down a career Justice Department employee named J. Gerald Hebert, who testified, albeit reluctantly, that in a conversation between the two men Sessions had labeled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) "un-American" and "Communist-inspired." Hebert said Sessions had claimed these groups "forced civil rights down the throats of people." In his confirmation hearings, Sessions sealed his own fate by saying such groups could be construed as "un-American" when "they involve themselves in promoting un-American positions" in foreign policy. Hebert testified that the young lawyer tended to "pop off" on such topics regularly, noting that Sessions had called a white civil rights lawyer a "disgrace to his race" for litigating voting rights cases. Sessions acknowledged making many of the statements attributed to him but claimed that most of the time he had been joking, saying he was sometimes "loose with [his] tongue." He further admitted to calling the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a "piece of intrusive legislation," a phrase he stood behind even in his confirmation hearings.
It got worse. Another damaging witness–a black former assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama named Thomas Figures–testified that, during a 1981 murder investigation involving the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions was heard by several colleagues commenting that he "used to think they [the Klan] were OK" until he found out some of them were "pot smokers." Sessions claimed the comment was clearly said in jest. Figures didn’t see it that way. Sessions, he said, had called him "boy" and, after overhearing him chastise a secretary, warned him to "be careful what you say to white folks." Figures echoed Hebert’s claims, saying he too had heard Sessions call various civil rights organizations, including the National Council of Churches and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, "un-American." Sessions denied the accusations but again admitted to frequently joking in an off-color sort of way. In his defense, he said he was not a racist, pointing out that his children went to integrated schools and that he had shared a hotel room with a black attorney several times.
I wanted, in preparation for the hearings, to compile a collection of quotes and tidbit about Sessions, just in case he "went there" during the hearing. But, as usual, somebody thought of it and followed-through on it before I could, and posted a Flickr collection worth checking out. [Via Boing Boing.]
I don’t know what else to add, really.
I’ll just leave it to Marie Cocco, in her column on closet racism in the age of Obama.
We are, in a way, lucky that far from the fake theater of the Senate hearing room, a real-life racial stage show has been playing out in suburban Philadelphia. There, a private swim club kicked out a group of African-Americans from a day camp whose operators had paid to use the pool so that their young charges could cool off and frolic just like anybody else. Until the swim club reversed itself and said it would readmit the campers, it had conjured up the sort of arguments that might, to some legal arbiters, make perfect sense: There were more kids than anticipated; supervision was a concern; so was safety.
If one of those campers someday rises to become a Supreme Court nominee, what part of this experience should he or she separate from the cold, hard facts of a case presented for decision?
Senators who argue in the Sotomayor hearings that race—let alone “empathy”—should never be a factor in legal rulings would do well to look beyond the dais. They should turn their eyes not toward an awkward phrase or two in an old Sotomayor speech. They must look instead toward Philadelphia.
Yeah. What if one of these kids ended up on the court?
Their experience shouldn’t have any bearing on thinking, their rulings, etc. Right? That wouldn’t be objective. Right?
How about if one of the white children whose parents yanked them out of the pool got on the court.
The same would apply. Right?