Newt Gingrich is not content to let Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney dominate the final evolutionary phase of the Republican Party into a club of mean, angry and absurd old white men.
Gingrich chimed in last week that Sonia Sotomayor ought to withdraw her nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court because she once told an Hispanic audience that a wise old Latina woman ought to have richer experience to bring to a better legal decision than an old white man would bring.
Sotomayor was giving a talk in which she offered her differing take on the quote by Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, that a wise old man and a wise old woman would come to the same conclusions.
Gingrich pronounced Sotomayor racist. Imagine what would happen to an old white guy saying the reverse, he said.
New racism is no better than old racism, Gingrich declared.
Has Sotomayor lynched any old white men? Has she denied any old white men the right to vote? Has she told the grandchildren of old white men that they must go to school only among their own kind with substandard facilities and equipment and books?
Old Republican white guys seem afflicted with this condition by which they fail to grasp the evils of our nation’s all-too-recent racist past.
Trent Lott was just joking, you know. But he still didn’t have an internal regulator telling him it would be best not to joke that America would have been better off if Strom Thurmond, running a racist third-party presidential campaign in 1948, had won.
Alabamian Jeff Sessions, who will lead Republican questioning of Sotomayor in what surely will pose a culture clash, also was merely joking. He, too, lacked that internal regulator telling him it would be ill-advised to crack wise that the Ku Klux Klan was all right with him until he found out that some of its members smoked dope.
Lott and Sessions — and now Gingrich — said something badly wrong and ill-advised. Sotomayor said something true and profound while politically ill-advised.
As Barack Obama has explained, 95 percent of judicial decisions are relatively easy, decided by a simple and generally uncontested application of the law. But on that 5 percent, the judge’s life story and experience can make a difference.
Thurgood Marshall, for example, could influence the aforementioned O’Connor by telling her stories of his life experience as a black man in a racist society, and O’Connor, a right-leaning Republican, could end up writing the majority opinion preserving affirmative action policies in admissions to the University of Michigan.
In other words, a black judge brought richer personal experience to a better legal ruling.
As O’Connor later wrote, Marshall, by his anecdotal sharing, brought her along over time from an instinctive aversion to affirmative action to this evolved, indeed better, legal view, one by which she would cast the decisive vote saying the University of Michigan was right to make special efforts to compensate for discrimination and assure the richness of diversity in its student body.
Sotomayor is talking about assuring the richness of diversity in our courts. Over time, she might bring her rich experience to bear in influencing a Supreme Court colleague — Anthony Kennedy, maybe — to reach a better ruling.
Whenever racism charges get thrown around all too freely like this, keep one thing in mind: Racism is not about simple bigotry. Simple bigotry is a personal problem. Racism is an institutional imposition of oppressive power based on mass application of that bigotry.
To say Sotomayor’s comment is no different from Jim Crow laws, which is essentially Gingrich’s point, is anachronistically insensitive, to be charitable. Actually, it is outrageous.
John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.