In the past month, Sonia Sotomayor has been called a lot of things - "not that smart," an "angry woman," and a "bully" with an "inflated opinion of herself." But of late, conservatives' favorite epithet has been "racist." Trading on her "wise Latina" speech and her decision in the New Haven firefighter case, men like Jeff Sessions, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly have tried to turn an accomplished Latina jurist into a pandering bigot incapable of impartiality.
This is the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that, if left unchallenged, gets accepted as part of our normal political discourse. That's why our organization, Presente Action, is running radio ads in Florida calling out members of Congress who represent Latino-heavy areas but refuse to denounce prominent media figures such as Limbaugh.
We must have hit a nerve, because both Limbaugh and O'Reilly gave the ads ample airtime on Monday, with Rush escalating his vitriol, saying Tuesday that Judge Sotomayor's collected comments are worse than George Allen's "macaca moment."
Why even respond to these baseless claims from the far right? Because real racism is something that people of color in this country still deal with every day, and it doesn't look anything like Sonia Sotomayor. Rather, it is Limbaugh and O'Reilly who consistently spew racist rhetoric even as they argue that America's racial problems are largely in the past, obviating the need for lowly "identity politics."
It's not difficult to find problematic clips from Bill and Rush, but it's worth noting a few of their lowest moments. Here's O'Reilly having a near coronary in his quest to demonize undocumented immigrants, who he refers to as "illegal aliens", not to mention his repeated use of the term "wetback." Limbaugh has called Mexicans "stupid and unqualified," and called L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa a "shoeshine boy."
There are real consequences when this country's most viewed conservative TV personalities spew out racist language like this. By dehumanizing Latinos, they create a climate that inevitably leads to racism and violence, particularly against immigrants. And the evidence bears this out. Members of the fast-growing Latino community are increasingly the targets of hate crimes, which have increased by 35% from 2003 to 2006.
One of the victims of this rising tide of hate was Luis Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant who was beaten to death in rural Pennsylvania late last year by a group of white teenagers yelling racial slurs, two of whom were acquitted of all serious charges by an all-white jury.
Nine-year-old Brisenia Flores met a similar fate, shot to death while she was sleeping, along with her father, Raul, by members of the Minutemen American Defense, which has ties to the leading anti-immigrant hate group, FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform). They entered the Flores home looking to steal funds for their vigilante activities.
Of course, those are just examples of racism in its most virulent - and violent - form. The everyday experience of prejudice is far more widespread. It is evidenced in the gap in pay between whites and people of color, and the stark difference between inner-city schools educating predominately children of color, and their largely white suburban counterparts. It is apparent in our swollen jails and prisons, where 70 percent of the population is non-white. And it is obvious in the scarcity of people of color in positions of authority, the kind of systemic discrimination that Judge Sotomayor fought as a student at Princeton.
Racism is also more subtle and pernicious. Indeed, it is embedded in the very notion that a Latina like Sonia Sotomayor is incapable of ruling fairly in a court of law, while white men like John Roberts or Samuel Alito face no such presumption of fidelity to their gender or ethnicities.
To anyone outside the right-wing echo chamber, it is hardly a stretch to recognize that racism is alive and well in the United States. But that is exactly why we cannot let allegations of Sotomayor's "racism" go unchallenged. The fight for our first Latina Supreme Court justice is just a small skirmish in a much bigger battle: for the definition of racism in 21st Century America.
We cannot let racism be defined as having a heritage and being proud of it; of being part of a community and seeking to advance its interests; of valuing and promoting diversity. Because if Sonia Sotomayor is a racist, then we will no longer have a word for the undeniable experience of millions of people of color who still face discrimination because of their skin or the country of their origin.