Commentary: 'Racist' joke isn't funny anymore

The Miami HeraldJune 9, 2009 

So Newt Gingrich now says Sonia Sotomayor is not a "racist" after all. She must be trembling with relief.

Gingrich's backpedaling came last week in an article on It leaves just two high-profile Republicans, former Rep. Tom Tancredo and radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh, still clinging to that absurd allegation.

As you know unless you are just back from Antarctica, this sudden spasm of righteous Republican rage is because of a speech Sotomayor gave in 2001 about the role gender, ethnicity and other characteristics play in a judge's judgment. "I would hope," she said, "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."

It is, yes, a wince-inducing statement. You might even call it a tone deaf and culturally chauvinistic one. But does it support comparisons to the Ku Klux Klan such as Tancredo and Gingrich have made? Not in a million years.

The attempt to paint Sotomayor as such represents more than political overreach. No, this is part and parcel of a campaign by conservatives to arrogate unto themselves and/or neutralize the language of social grievance. We've seen this before. They sullied the word "feminist" so thoroughly even feminists disdain it. They made "liberal" such a vulgarity you'd never know liberals fought to ban child labor, end Jim Crow or win women the right to vote.

Having no record of their own of responding compassionately to social grievance (ask them what they did during the civil rights movement and they grow very quiet) conservatives have chosen instead to co-opt the language of that grievance. And if what they did to the language of women's rights and progressivism took some gall, what they are seeking to do to the language of race suggests a testicular circumference of bovine proportions. There is something surreal about hearing those who have historically been the enemies of racial progress define racial progress as looking out for the poor white brother.

And whatever comes beyond surreal is what describes these three men in particular, none of whom has ever been distinguished by his previous tender concern for racial minorities lied upon, denied upon and systematically cheated of their square of the American Dream, telling us "racism" is what happens when a Hispanic woman says something dumb about white men. We are, after all, talking about a man (Tancredo) who once called majority Hispanic Miami "a third world" country, and another man (Limbaugh) who advised a black caller to "take that bone out of your nose." These are fighters against racism?

You keep waiting for someone to break up laughing. You keep looking for Ashton Kutcher to say you've been punk'd.

But they are in earnest, and there is a pattern here: The forces of intolerance seeking to redefine the parameters of a debate they can win in no other way. Read the treatises that attempt to make Martin Luther King Jr. an icon of conservatism. Read the ones that claim the relative handful of black-on-white violent crimes occurring annually in this country constitutes "genocide." Read the mewling of white victimization that rises any time blacks or browns are perceived as having won some victory over discrimination.

There is to it a breathtaking cynicism and a willingness to manipulate for political gain one of the rawest places in the psyche of a nation. The goal is not to persuade. It is to muddy the water, confuse the debate. Because when you can't win the argument, confusing it works almost as well.

Based on one foolish quote, we have spent a week asking if Sotomayor is a racist. I'd call that mission accomplished. And I wish Kutcher would come out already.

It's not funny anymore.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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