If you read the liberal blogosphere, you know about Senator Jefferson Beauregard "Jeff" Sessions's history of dubious racial statements. If you're following on most of the mainstream media, you don't. You might even buy the Alabama Republican's not-so-subtle assertion that Sotomayor is a "racist" -- discriminating against whites -- while Sessions is above any considerations of color. This will change only if some Democratic Senator on the judicial committee (though probably not Al Franken) calls Session on his game, and calls him on his history.
Sessions, as you may know, was rejected for a federal court seat after calling the NAACP "un-American" because it "forced civil rights down the throats of people." He also called a white attorney a "disgrace to his race" for litigating voting rights cases on behalf of African Americans. And during a murder investigation of the Ku Klux Klan, he joked, as black former assistant US Attorney Thomas Figures testified in Sessions's original hearings, about how he had no problems with the Klan until he discovered they were pot smokers. He also warned Figures to "be careful what you say to white folks." It's ugly stuff, and consistent with his racially charged questioning of Judge Sotomayor: He said she should have voted with a fellow Puerto Rican judge whose opinions he endorsed, asking, "Is there any instance in which you'd let your prejudice impact your decisions?"
But the major media still hasn't covered Sessions's history. It's too loaded, jarring, and ugly. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin did raise related issues, saying: "What's worth noting about what Jeff Sessions -- the line of questioning, was that being a white man, that's normal. Everybody else has biases and prejudices ... but the white man, they don't have any ethnicity, they don't have any gender, they're just like the normal folks."
But the worst of the history remains largely buried, and therefore invisible to most of the public. For that to change, some Democratic senator on the judicial committee must breach Senate decorum, and say bluntly and unequivocally that someone with Sessions's history can't say Sotomayor's relationship to her racial identity makes her less fit to be a Supreme Court Justice. They'll have to say that so strongly that the major media has to cover it, and therefore make it central to the hearings.
A Democratic senator must do this because it's the truth and it will resonate politically. The way Sessions, Rush Limbaugh and others are going after Sotomayor jibes with how the Republicans are now the party of older white Southerners -- barely reconstructed Confederates. In an electorate that's becoming younger and more racially diverse, that's not a winning brand. So while some in the heart of dear old Dixie may cheer Sessions on, my hunch is that most now coming of age feel at least somewhat embarrassed about his approach. So do most whites in the rest of the country, particularly younger ones. So do the Latinos who are proudly anticipating Sotomayor's ratification. And the Republicans have long since lost the African American vote, something black RNC chairman Michael Steele is unlikely to reverse with recent talk of winning them back with "fried chicken and potato salad." (What, no watermelon?)
Sotomayor can't raise this history. She must stay above the fray, since once she gets confirmed she'll be making her case to a jury of one: Justice Kennedy. Barring some unlikely conversion, Alito, Thomas, Scalia and Roberts are so bought into a hard-right authoritarian politics that, ties to hawkish neocons aside, they'd fit seamlessly into affirming the election in Ahmadinejad's Iran.
Suppose, however, one of the Democratic senators on the judicial committee raised this history bluntly and unequivocally. True, it would break senate congeniality, and the Republicans would protest. But the Democrats will never have Sessions's vote, and the more his race baiting becomes an issue, the better for the Democrats long-term -- and maybe for the Republicans too, if they're ever going to emerge from this kind of politics. To make that happen, at least one Democratic senator will need to step up.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles