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Sotomayor and Condescending Identity Politics

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Identity politics are not good for the country or for the groups they purport to advance. This is not to undercut Sonia Sotomayor, who, as the news reports all start out, is the first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court and, if confirmed, would be the third female justice. From what we know about her so far, she seems qualified for the job.

But turning such appointments into political payback for an ethnic group or gender makes an unseemly spectacle. It undermines real achievements and infantilizes the candidate.

The important part of Sotomayor's time at Princeton wasn't her struggle as a Bronx-raised, working-class Puerto Rican among the Ivy League flowers. After all, Sotomayor did attend a good private Catholic high school. (And had she been born of poor Chinese immigrants, little fuss would have been made of her academic success.) The essence of Sotomayor's Princeton experience was that she graduated summa cum laude and went on to Yale Law School, where she was an editor on the law journal.

In recounting Sotomayor's "extraordinary journey," though, President Obama treats her as a daughter, not a colleague. His mention of her girlhood passion for Nancy Drew mysteries draws sweet laughter from the audience. And he repeatedly refers to Celina Sotomayor as "Sonia's mom."

Could you imagine a formal nomination speech that talked of John Roberts' mother as "John's mom"? And would anyone note that the chief justice enjoyed "Winnie the Pooh" as a boy, which he probably did?

When President Bush named his two male Supreme Court nominees, he invariably called them "Judge Roberts" and "Judge Alito." Sotomayor is every bit as much a judge, but Obama calls her "Sonia."

As in: "Well, Sonia, what you've shown in your life is that it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way -- no dream is beyond reach in the United States of America." That hackneyed line would feel right in place at a high school graduation.

Obama no doubt reasons that he has picked someone whom the Republicans would not dare attack, given their recent poor electoral showing among Latinos. Embedded in this assumption is that Hispanics vote as a unit and on ethnic grounds.

Latinos are themselves a diverse group and don't all agree, even on immigration. Yet in writing of the politics of this nomination, Politico repeats the accepted wisdom that Republican stands on immigration "dramatically increased" the Democratic Party's share of the Hispanic vote last November.

Harsh, ethnically tinged comments during the immigration debate surely turned off some Latino voters. But what about the collapsing economy, which has disproportionately hurt Hispanic families? Democrats made significant gains among blue-collar Americans of all ethnic backgrounds.

It helps to remember that in the 2003 race for California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger won 30 percent of the Latino vote -- even though he was a Republican opposed to granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. A third candidate to Schwarzenegger's right took another 9 percent. Furthermore, the Democrat, Cruz Bustamante, was an open-borders advocate who would have been California's first modern Latino governor.

As for Puerto Ricans in New York, a New York Times-CBS News poll that same year found that only 19 percent wanted even legal immigration increased, while 36 percent said it should be reduced. Puerto Ricans are automatically American citizens.

And so identity politics can be misinformed as well as patronizing. This particular narrative turns the female nominee into everyone's little girl. And its treating of high achievement in only some groups with awe is offensive. Let's examine Sotomayor's record with a straight gaze, and leave identity politics at home. Won't happen, but let's try.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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