In the heat of his primary battle last year, Barack Obama bemoaned “identity politics” in America, calling it “an enormous distraction” from the real issues of the day. Many thought his inauguration as the first African-American president this year was supposed to usher in a new post-racial age.
But four months later, identity politics is back with a vengeance. A president who these days refers to his background obliquely when he does at all chose a Supreme Court candidate who openly embraces her own. Critics took issue with her past statements and called her a “reverse racist.” And the capital once again has polarized along familiar lines.
The selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor brought these issues to the fore again for several reasons. Obama's selection process was clearly geared from the beginning toward finding a female or minority candidate, or both. Only one of the nine candidates was a white male and all four finalists he interviewed were women. One of Sotomayor's most prominent cases involved an affirmative action claim. And her comment on her Latina background shaping her jurisprudence provided fodder for opponents.
“He didn't pick a post-racial candidate,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a leading conservative scholar on race relations and the author of a new book called “Voting Rights – And Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections.” “She's a quintessential spokesman for racial spoils.”
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The White House argued that Sotomayor's opponents were picking through her past remarks to wield her words against her. “What the election of Obama said is people want to move forward rather than backwards, and I think that's still true,” said David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser. “Americans are savvier and more thoughtful than some of the demagogues give them credit.”
The Supreme Court seems to promote this sort of discussion more than any other forum in public life, perhaps because it has so few seats and they come open so rarely. Of the 110 people who have served on the court, only four were not white males.
“Obama has sought to transcend ethnic differences and has emphasized his own post-racial identity to appeal to as many Americans as possible,” said William Burck, a deputy White House counsel under President George W. Bush. “It seems that Judge Sotomayor considers her ethnicity to be a central part of who she is, not just as a private citizen but also as a lawyer and a judge.”
Much of that assessment stems not just from Sotomayor's membership in groups that brought discrimination claims or her ruling against white firefighters in a New Haven affirmative action case, but from a single speech she gave at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001that addressed the role personal backgrounds play in rendering decisions and concluded that “our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.”
“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,” she said.