Conservatives react to historic Supreme Court nominee by smearing Sotomayor as "racist," "bigot"

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI

Numerous conservative media figures have misrepresented remarks Judge Sonia Sotomayor made during a speech at Berkeley in 2001 to smear her as a racist and a bigot.

Since President Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, numerous conservative media figures have smeared her as a racist and a bigot. In doing so, these media figures have frequently cited -- and misrepresented -- remarks she made during a speech at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law, in which she asserted, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Specifically, Rush Limbaugh claimed Sotomayor is a "reverse racist"; radio host Mark Levin called her a "bigot"; and Glenn Beck claimed Sotomayor made "one of the most outrageous racist remarks I've heard. ... She sure sounds like a racist."

As Media Matters for America has documented, media figures have misrepresented Sotomayor's Berkeley remarks. For example, Fox News host Megyn Kelly said that Sotomayor was claiming "that Latina judges are obviously better than white male judges." In fact, Sotomayor was specifically discussing the importance of diversity in adjudicating race and sex discrimination cases.

Indeed, former Bush Justice Department lawyer John Yoo has similarly stressed that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas "is a black man with a much greater range of personal experience than most of the upper-class liberals who take potshots at him" and argued that Thomas' work on the court has been influenced by his understanding of the less fortunate acquired through personal experience. Thomas himself, in responding to the question during his confirmation hearing of why he "want[ed] this job," said in part: "I believe ... that I can make a contribution, that I can bring something different to the Court, that I can walk in the shoes of the people who are affected by what the Court does."

Numerous conservative media figures have accused Sotomayor of racism or bigotry since her nomination to the Supreme Court:

  • During the May 26 broadcast of his show, Limbaugh said of Sotomayor: "So here you have a racist. You might -- you might want to soften that, and you might want to say a reverse racist. And the libs, of course, say that minorities cannot be racists because they don't have the power to implement their racism. Well, those days are gone, because reverse racists certainly do have the power to implement their power. Obama is the greatest living example of a reverse racist, and now he's appointed one." Elsewhere during his show, Limbaugh claimed:

LIMBAUGH: The drive-by media, AP, reporting that I referred to Sonia Sotomayor as a "reverse racist" and Obama as a -- which I did. I stand by it. I have an audio sound bite from Sonia Sotomayor and a quote from a speech that she made in a separate occasion to illustrate the point.

After playing audio of Sotomayor at a 2005 forum, Limbaugh then read an excerpt from Sotomayor's Berkeley speech and said, "If that's not a racist statement, I don't know what is -- reverse racist or whatever":

LIMBAUGH: In another example of her radical judicial philosophy, Sonia Sotomayor stated in a 2002 speech at Berkeley that she believes it's appropriate for a judge to consider, quote, "their experiences as women and people of color" -- reverse racism. She's a minority. Only she can understand the horrible trials and tribulations minorities have gone through, and the courts are the places where their grievances are redressed -- and they're not. The court is where the law is dealt with.

In the same speech, Sonia Sotomayor went on to say, quote, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experience, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." If that's not a racist statement, I don't know what is -- reverse racist or whatever. Let me read it to you another way.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in another speech, said, I would hope that a wise white man, with the richness of his experience, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a Latina female who hasn't lived the rich white man's life. Do you think there would be any dispute that John Roberts had made a racist statement?

  • During the May 26 broadcast of his radio show, Levin claimed of "so-called moderate" Democratic senators voting on Sotomayor: "These people need to understand that if they vote to confirm a radical leftist -- and I will now say what I actually believe -- who is a bigot -- that's right, I said it -- then they need to pay a political price for this." Levin later said he wanted to "defend my position that I believe this nominee is bigoted":

LEVIN: Let me defend my position that I believe this nominee is bigoted. New York Times of all places, May 15th -- we will link to all this on marklevinshow.com. In 2001, Sonia Sotomayor gave a speech declaring that the ethnicity and sex of a judge, quote, "may and will make a difference in our judging." She said, quote, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Now I'm sure they'll spin it. I'm sure they'll attack those of us who see something like this as a red flag, but there is no way -- there is no way you can justify a statement like that other than a bigoted statement. That's not based on somebody's content or character, as Martin Luther King would say. That's based on a generalized statement about race and ethnicity. That statement alone -- that statement alone should disqualify her. Period.

While Levin said he "actually believe[d]" that Sotomayor is a "bigot," Levin later claimed he didn't believe she is "a bigot per se, but her comment was certainly bigoted":

CALLER: Yeah. I mean, well, other than the fact that she's a bigot. I mean, but, you know, she's a horrible choice.

LEVIN: All right --

CALLER: Anyway, Mark, just wanted your thought on that -- on that legal perspective. But God bless, man. And --

LEVIN: All right, you too. Thank you.

Now I don't know that I would say she's a bigot per se, but her comment was certainly bigoted -- the one that I've read. And if that is her view, and if that is something she has told other people, then there is a serious question. There's just no question about that.

  • On the May 26 edition of his Fox News program, Beck said Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments "smacks of racism" and is "one of the most outrageous racist remarks I've heard." Beck later claimed:

BECK: I don't like the charges of, "Oh, you're a racist. They're a racist." Very few people are racist.

There are racists and they're bad people. And -- but it's -- most Americans are good, just decent people, and I hate the charges and cries of racism. But when I hear this -- I mean, gee. She sure sounds like a racist here.

  • On the May 27 broadcast of his radio program, Beck similarly claimed of Sotomayor: "I think she's a racist. I think she has decided things based on race." From Premiere Radio Networks' The Glenn Beck Program:

BECK: Well, we've got a -- we've got a Supreme Court justice nominee that is going to be all compassionate and empathetic. I think she's a racist. I think she has decided things based on race. I think she says that a Hispanic woman with the experience of being a Hispanic woman can make decisions that a white man can't make.

I can't imagine -- I can't imagine saying that. That's like saying, "You know what? Hispanics can't make money decisions like them Jews." Can you imagine that? I mean, they just can't -- "Look, I don't mean any offense by that. It's just that Hispanics, they're generally on the lower end of the economic spectrum, and Jews, they have so much experience with money and running financial things. They can -- Jews can just make financial decisions that Hispanics can't."

Who would say that? Who would say that? In what setting besides a Klan rally -- that strangely had respect for Jews in this one case -- in what setting would that be said that everybody wouldn't go, "Wow, you're a racist"?

I guess, it's just, again, you need to be the right person in the right class with the right point of view. That is not a healthy sign. It's not a healthy sign that we're talking about putting that person to now decide what the law says.

  • On the May 26 broadcast of his radio show, CNN host Lou Dobbs called Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments "racist." Dobbs also added of Sotomayor's nomination: "This is pure, pure absolute pandering to the Hispanics, and, you know, filling in the box on one more minority -- that who is actually, you know, they are actually a majority -- and that is women."
  • During the May 26 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, Kelly described Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remarks as "reverse racism" and said it was "[l]ike she's saying that Latina judges are obviously better than white male judges." Kelly later added, "I've looked at the entire speech that she was offering to see if that was taken out of context, and I have to tell you ... it wasn't."
  • During the May 26 edition of Fox News' The Live Desk, Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson claimed that Sotomayor had said that "because of your race or gender, you're a better or worse judge; that female, Latina judges are likely to render wiser decisions than white male judges." Carlson continued, "That's a racist statement, by any calculation."
  • During the May 27 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America, columnist Ann Coulter claimed of Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments: "It is a racist statement, and I think it does a disservice to women and minorities that we're supposed to be empathizing for by suggesting they do have a different way of deciding cases."
  • A May 27 Washington Examiner editorial, headlined, "The racist jurisprudence of Sonia Sotomayor," accused Sotomayor of "blatant racism":

But it is her 2001 comment to a Berkley [sic] Law School audience that is most revealing of Sotomayor's ethnocentric jurisprudence: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." It is not hard to imagine the outcry that would greet a white male nominee who suggested that his ethnicity and experience would enable him to reach better conclusions than a minority who had lived a different sort of life. He would be dismissed as a racist, and rightly so. Is President Obama now asking that we look the other way when blatant racism comes from an Hispanic woman of otherwise solid achievement?

  • In a May 27 Denver Post column, Vincent Carroll claimed Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments were an "expression of bigotry":

If racial and gender bigotry truly have no place in American public life today, then Judge Sonia Sotomayor, during her confirmation hearing for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, needs to utterly repudiate her 2001 assertion that "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Putting that statement "in context" or explaining what she "really meant" will not do. Nor can Judge Sotomayor credibly argue that her assertion was an ill-considered mistake, since it was part of a prepared speech at the Berkeley school of law. No, she needs to reject it as the expression of bigotry that it was.

Even then she'd be getting off easy. After all, as Stuart Taylor wrote last weekend in the National Journal, "Any prominent white male would be instantly and properly banished from polite society as a racist and a sexist for making an analogous claim of ethnic and gender superiority or inferiority."

Sotomayor, by contrast, is on the verge of a lifetime post on the most powerful court in the land.

While Sotomayor's comparison of the relative wisdom of Latina women and white men has garnered most of the attention in her Berkeley speech, it was hardly her only eyebrow-raising remark that day. After wondering "whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society," she then added, "Whatever the reasons why we may have different perspectives, either as some theorists suggest because of our cultural experiences or as others postulate because we have basic differences in logic and reasoning, are in many respects a small part of a larger practical question we as women and minority judges in society in general must address."

Is she really suggesting that men and women, as well as people of different races, "have basic differences in logic and reasoning" in approaching legal issues? Once again, can you imagine a prominent white male saying such a thing without a legion of critics demanding that he do public penance?

From the May 26 broadcast of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:

LIMBAUGH: So here you have a racist. You might -- you might want to soften that, and you might want to say a reverse racist. And the libs, of course, say that minorities cannot be racists because they don't have the power to implement their racism. Well, those days are gone, because reverse racists certainly do have the power to implement their power. Obama is the greatest living example of a reverse racist, and now he's appointed one.

From the May 26 broadcast of ABC Radio Networks' The Mark Levin Show:

LEVIN: Again, next hour, you won't want to miss it, we're going to get much more heavily into this. We're going to hear some audio, some statements. And I'll put it in context for you, because we have to fight these things. They keep rolling over -- "Ah, well, they're going to get her anyway." Ah, excuse me. There are some so-called moderate Democrats: [Sen. Ben] Nelson of Nebraska, Landfill [Sen. Mary Landrieu] of Louisiana, [Sen. Evan] Bayh of Indiana.

These people need to understand that if they vote to confirm a radical leftist -- and I will now say what I actually believe -- who is a bigot -- that's right, I said it -- then they need to pay a political price for this. These are lifetime appointments. This isn't the deputy associate director of jelly beans. This is a Supreme Court justice.

[...]

LEVIN: Let me defend my position that I believe this nominee is bigoted. New York Times of all places, May 15th -- we will link to all this on marklevinshow.com. In 2001, Sonia Sotomayor gave a speech declaring that the ethnicity and sex of a judge, quote, "may and will make a difference in our judging." She said, quote, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Now I'm sure they'll spin it. I'm sure they'll attack those of us who see something like this as a red flag, but there is no way -- there is no way you can justify a statement like that other than a bigoted statement. That's not based on somebody's content or character, as Martin Luther King would say. That's based on a generalized statement about race and ethnicity. That statement alone -- that statement alone should disqualify her. Period.

[...]

CALLER: Well, you know what, Mark? I think that that one comment that she made where policy is made --

LEVIN: Oh, yeah.

CALLER: -- on the federal -- at the Court of Appeals, I think that comment alone should disqualify her, because right there --

LEVIN: I do, too.

CALLER: I'm sorry?

LEVIN: That's one of them. There's others as well.

CALLER: Yeah. I mean, well, other than the fact that she's a bigot. I mean, but, you know, she's a horrible choice.

LEVIN: All right --

CALLER: Anyway, Mark, just wanted your thought on that -- on that legal perspective there. But God bless, man. And --

LEVIN: All right, you too. Thank you.

Now I don't know that I would say she's a bigot per se, but her comment was certainly bigoted -- the one that I've read. And if that is her view, and if that is something she has told other people, then there is a serious question. There's just no question about that.

From the May 26 edition of Fox News' Glenn Beck:

BECK: OK. And I want to get into this because I think she's made one of the most outrageous racist remarks I've heard. We'll get into that here in just a second when we come back.

[...]

BECK: Here's what our Supreme Court justice nominee said in a lecture at UC Berkeley School of Law in 2001. She said: "I would hope that a wise Latino woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion as a judge than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Gosh, that smacks of racism, but maybe it's just me, Ed.

M. EDWARD WHELAN III (Ethics and Public Policy Center president): Well, any white male who made the equivalent of that statement would readily be indicted for racism. Look, what she's talking about is that it's perfectly acceptable for her to draw on her own values in deciding what the law means. That's a recipe for lawlessness.

And we see that, actually, when we look at the way she decided an important case that's now pending before the Supreme Court involving firefighters in New Haven who are denied promotions on the basis of their race.

These are white and Hispanic firefighters who passed a promotional exam that the city had established. The city then decided it didn't like the racial profile of those who had passed and then threw out the exam.

And Sonia Sotomayor, in this case, had no empathy for these firefighters who had worked hard and studied to take this exam. And she and her colleagues worked to bury their claims before anyone could have any idea what had actually happened to them -- really remarkable shenanigans that a Clinton appointee and a fellow Hispanic, Judge Jose Cabranes, exposed. And thanks to him, the case is now in front of the Supreme Court. And --

BECK: So -- look, you know, both of you guys, I don't like the charges of, "Oh, you're a racist. They're a racist." Very few people are racist.

There are racists and they're bad people. And -- but it's -- most Americans are good, just decent people, and I hate the charges and cries of racism. But when I hear this -- I mean, gee. She sure sounds like a racist here. Do you think she's a racist, Randy?

RANDY BARNETT (Georgetown University Law Center professor): Well, I'm a full-time law professor and I can tell you that statements like that are relatively commonplace in academia, in legal academia and other forms of academia. So I'm sure that she felt rather comfortable in making a statement like that. And I think people just get used to saying things like that without necessarily thinking them through.

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