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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

The fight over Sonia Sotomayor: Why are so few Hispanics on TV debating the first Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court?

SoniaSotomayor_BarackObama_052609 I’ve figured out what annoys me most about the media circus that has erupted in the wake of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

It’s not watching a long procession of white males – and a few females -- dissect what Sotomayor meant when she said eight years ago that she hopes a Latina would make better legal decisions than a white male.

(Frankly, it seems obvious she went a little overboard in celebrating the impact of her own culture. And where the heck is the Senate’s highest-profile Hispanic member, former Republican National Committee chair and Florida U.S. senator Mel Martinez, in this debate?)

It’s not seeing the predictable right-wing extremists say extreme things. Though it is hard for me to decide whether I should laugh or fume upon hearing Rush Limbaugh – the guy who made satirical song for his radio show called Barack the Magic Negro – call someone else a racist.

It’s not even seeing a procession of journalists present the same three criticisms of her past, while glossing over a career’s worth of legal judgments, academic achievements and job accomplishments.

Or seeing so few of those same journalists take a few minutes to unearth Republicans talking about the wonderful impact from the cultural background of conservative Supreme Court nominees such as Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

What irks me most, is what happens whenever race surfaces as an issue in politics: white politicians and pundits pretend their race and culture have no impact on their sensibilities.

It’s an unspoken subtext in many of these conversations. On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked “What happened to the idea that justice should be blind?” later asking about the impact of “identity politics” in one of her decisions.

Sonia_sotomayor Why does the term "identity politics" only surface when people of color voice their concerns about stereotyping and institutional bias?

A CNN story quoted a tally of her decisions on discrimination from a blog, noting that she ruled against a finding of discrimination 80 percent of the time – as if rejecting claims of discrimination were, somehow, proof that she’s fair.

In the end, it is a knife that cuts both ways: when people of color acknowledge that their ethnic heritage gives them an insight their white colleagues may lack, then they are more easily reduced to caricature.

I think it was telling that in all the political TV chat about Sotomayor I watched over the weekend, it was PBS host Gwen Ifill, who is black, who made the point that few people find controversy in the way white men’s cultural experience have shaped their opinions and professional decisions.

I’ve always said, in these situations, context counts. If someone makes a racially clumsy remark, and they have no history of living out that remark in other ways, it’s probably just a stupid mistake.

But television loves conflict, and political TV depends on a cast of disturbingly similar pundits and politicians to discuss the issues facing an increasingly diverse nation. I couldn’t imagine how frustrating it would be as a Latino to watch this debate play out with nearly no Hispanic voices involved in the discussion.

My second biggest gripe about coverage: Seeing Hispanics subjected to a level of callousness that likely would not be tolerated against black people.

There are few hosts who would feel comfortable seeing the NAACP compared to the Ku Klux Klan; I would hope most would see that as analogous to comparing anti-Semitism watchdog the Anti-Defamation League to the Nazi party.

But former congressman Tom Tancredo had no problem calling the Hispanic-centered civil rights group La Raza a “Latino KKK” on CNN, just as others have said -- quoted anonymously by journalists such as CNN’s John King – that the honors graduate of Princeton might not be smart enough to sit on the court.

Indeed, as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn sat on ABC’s This Week Sunday criticizing Sotomayor, he also stuck up for filibustered George W. Bush nominee Miguel Estrada -- a lawyer suggested for the court of appeals in 2001 with no prior experience as a judge -- and Clarence Thomas, who saw allegations of sexual harassment surface soon after his nomination was announced.

So does experience really count? Why do so many arguments against Sotomayor seem to lean against common sense and history? And why aren’t the hosts of these shows pressing politicians harder on all of this?

I hope, when the Senate prepares to debate her confirmation, they have more substantive issues at hand than a line from a 2001 speech, a 2008 decision reached with two other judges and a line from a 2005 speech.

The nation deserves a better debate on its next possible Supreme Court justice. It’s time traditional journalists, columnists and TV anchors worked harder to give them one.

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[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:58pm]

    

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