Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich backpedaled from his reverse racist slur of Supreme Court designate Sonia Sotomayor as a racist. A defiant Rush Limbaugh didn't. There's a reason. For more than four decades the reverse racist tag has been the most potent weapon in the arsenal of ultra-conservatives and closet bigots to torpedo affirmative action, cower elected officials and judicial appointees into silence or tepid support of civil rights and poverty related issues and court decisions, and deflect attention from the continued political and economic dominance of well-to-do white males. Obama's election did not change the racial power dynamic in America.
There is still only a handful of African-American, Latino or Asian CEOs who run Fortune 500 companies or who sit on their Boards of Directors. The overwhelming majority of top, middle and lower corporate managers are white males. There is only one African-American in the Senate. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund notes that the increase in the number of minorities on the federal bench has been frozen during the Bush years. Minorities still make up a small percentage of state and federal judges. The first Latina on the High Court won't change that. Laws and public policy are still made, shaped, and enforced by white males.
Sotomayor and any minority perceived to be a threat to corporate and political white male dominance will be branded a reverse racist. This is not new.
The bogus term cropped up in the early 1960s during the first surge of black militancy. A CBS special on the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, Mike Wallace, was labeled "the hate that hate produced." The special played hard on the theme that the Black Muslims with their white man is a devil rhetoric and messianic religious flavored black separatism were the incarnate of racial bigotry. In the next few years, the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Chicano activists, and other militant groups were routinely reviled as reverse Klan, Nazis, and racist nightriders.
The term reverse discrimination seeped into the official lexicon in 1969 when conservatives took the first light swipe at alleged racial favoritism in government contracting programs that mandated hiring goals and timetables for minorities. The term didn't fully resonate at that time. There was still the glow and goodwill from the 1960s civil rights movement. And then President Richard Nixon backed affirmative action programs that included minority hiring and contracting quotas in the trades. The mood abruptly changed in the late 1970s with the first full blown assault on affirmative action. The assault was fueled by the notion that white males were fast losing ground to hordes of unqualified, incompetent blacks, Latinos and women in business, the professions and the trades. Reverse discrimination or reverse racism now became a staple in the public vocabulary. In its Bakke case ruling in 1978 the Supreme Court virtually banned the use of quotas for minorities in hiring and education, under the guise of ending reverse discrimination.
Since then the faintest hint of a tilt toward minorities in a corporate hiring program, or a university hiring or scholarship program has drawn instant howls of reverse discrimination and piles of lawsuits. The chill on affirmative action programs partly worked. Republican and Democratic presidents Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton, vowed to end or modify affirmative action programs in government agencies. Much of the public now firmly believed that minorities were getting unfair advantage in business and the professions, and that this and they were racist.
Limbaugh and conservatives are banking that branding Sotomayor with the racist tag will punch the standard emotional hot buttons before, during and after her confirmation. The after effect is especially important since so much is at stake in how Sotomayor will vote and the opinions she'll write on the likely stream of race tinged cases that the court will be called on to decide.
Pounding Sotomayor as a racist has already paid a small dividend. In private meetings with moderate Democrat and conservative Republican Senators, the judge slightly pulled back from the reference she made to herself as a wise Latina in a 2001 speech. She called it a poor choice of words. This won't be the last mea culpa she'll be required to make for her alleged racism before she's confirmed. She'll be under tremendous pressure to assure Senators that she'll play it strictly by the moderate and conservative playbook on any and all decisions that even remotely touch on race and class issues on the bench.
This is the terrible price that a wise Latina or anyone else tagged as a reverse racist will have to pay. And will continue to pay.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard weekly in Los Angeles on Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com