Debating Sotomayor And Race: Is It Productive?

Two weeks since Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to become the first Latina on the Supreme Court, most of the national dialog surrounding her nomination has focused on race and controversial comments from a 2001 speech. But many now wonder whether the debate over Sotomayor has been a productive one. Two conservative writers discuss the country's latest conversations on race.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, for some native American tribes, casinos and resort ventures have brought tremendous profit. But for most tribes, the recession is weakening an already fragile economic existence. We're going to hear more about that in just a few minutes. But first, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and the national dialogue about race. Apparently, Sotomayor's taking the advice to break a leg during the confirmation process a little too seriously. She reportedly fractured an ankle yesterday, rushing through a New York Airport.

She was en route to Washington to continue her informal visits with some of the senators who will vote on her nomination. But we wanted to talk more though about some of the national dialogue that has been sparked by Sotomayor's nomination. There are those who champion her selection as the breaking of another historic barrier. There are those who believe that interest in, even excitement about her ethnicity has inappropriately overshadowed more important questions, like her judicial record and philosophy.

And there are those, of course, who question her commitment to racial fairness, owing to now famous comments she made in a 2001 speech suggesting that a quote "wise Latina" end quote, with a varied life experience might come to better decisions than a white man without that experience. However one views the selection it does seem that it has sparked some kind of dialogue about race and ethnicity. But is it a productive one?

We've invited two writers to speak with us who've both written recently about Sotomayor's effect on the racial dialogue, or the effect that they hope it can have on this dialogue. And we've invited them to join us. Sophia Nelson is a former Republican strategist and the editor-in-chief of the blog politicalintersection.com. She recently wrote a piece in Huffington Post titled "Open Letter To White Males."

Also with us is Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large at the National Review Online. His piece is the Sotomayor debate is a chance to talk it out on race, rather than the usual mixture of kabuki dance and whack-a-mole. And thank you both for joining us.

Mr. JONAH GOLDBERG (National Review Online): Thank you.

Ms. SOPHIA NELSON (Political Intersection Blog): Thank you.

MARTIN: Jonah, first let me start with you. What sparked your piece? I mean, one of the things that you do in the piece is that you take pains to say that you're not going to engage in kind of the usual finger-pointing and assailing other people's motives. You're going to assume that there's goodwill, intelligence and…

Mr. GOLDBERG: Sure.

MARTIN: …well-meaning on both sides. But…

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well the but is, we hear a constant refrain I think in this country about the need to have an open and frank conversation about race. I mean, it is a clichéd talking point - whatever its merits, its something you hear often. In fact, the last time we heard it was from the Attorney General Eric Holder who went so far as to say we're a nation of cowards because of our refusal to talk about race. Now frankly, I think we actually talk about race a great deal in this country.

But be that as it may, it seems to me that there's - sort of the liberal left has set up this construct that we need to talk about race. And it seems to me though that every time conservatives or let's just say non-liberals want to engage this conversation that's where the whack-a-mole comes in. And I'll give a perfectly sort of benign example. If you believe that we need to have a frank observation, not just about black-white relations but about all of these sorts of issues.

About a year or so ago, Newt Gingrich offered this opinion that bilingual education, which a lot of studies, certainly studies I credit, that Newt Gingrich credit, a lot of people think that it holds back immigrant kids from learning English as quickly as they otherwise might. And Gingrich said that this keeps them in a kind of ghetto. He was immediately jumped on by La Raza and various Hispanic civil rights groups and whatnot, saying, how dare he say this, he must apologize, he must, you know, back off of it.

And then Gingrich, as perfectly fitting the kabuki that this usually is, came out and said, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to - that's what I said. And he started doing these Spanish language ads and all the rest. And it seems to me we have something similar with Sotomayor. We have this woman who fits neatly and cleanly in the mainstream liberal view about racial preferences, about the role of race in society, about the role of her own narrative and all the rest, who has said things not just once in that one speech but has made this point several times now about the sort of differences between various, you know, identity politics…

MARTIN: So what's the conversation - the frank conversation you feel needs to take place?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, what happened was, first of all, I think the whack-a-mole hand, when people like Chuck Schumer says, don't you dare talk about her, you know, don't you dare go after this. And then all of a sudden, you had Barack Obama, you had the White House in general say, oh, she didn't mean what she said. She didn't say what she said that's not what she said. She would've restated it. It was unscripted - it was this, it was that. And the thing is, I don't believe that. I think she actually believes that.

So let's have her explain what she's talking about. Let's use these confirmation hearings, I think she's going to get confirmed anyway, to talk about racial preferences, to talk about all these sorts of things. She can defend her judicial record, which I gather is actually a lot better from my perspective than what you would think, given some of these quotes. But instead, what you see from the liberals now which is, oh, no, no, this isn't the good time to do it.

Instead, we have to get this woman approved. Well, which is it? Is it, you know, is this a teaching moment, should we have this conversation? Or is this something that the left only wants to have these conversations when it's beneficial for them?

MARTIN: Sophia, what about you? Your piece - and you started with a very interesting biographical note. You say that I like white males, both of my great grandfathers were full-blooded white Irish men. My great, great maternal grandmother, a slave, ran off and married her slave master's son. All very interesting biography. But your point is what?

Ms. NELSON: Well, one, in just listening to Jonah, I think he's right that we do need to have a dialogue about this and it needs to be constructive. I don't support the notion that when a white male speaks in this country, whether it be Newt Gingrich, whoever, that they should have to be afraid that what they say will automatically qualify them as a racist. I think we've to be careful about that as much as I don't like Judge Sotomayor's comments being taken out of context, which I think they clearly were, and having someone call her a racist, I don't think it's constructive to call white males racist. So I wanted to start off my piece with just saying to white males, you're not going to be able to call me your classic liberal, you know, all these name callings that they call people. And say that I'm biased against white males because I've got them in my family tree, as do all of us - many of us do. But also, I felt that as a Republican, if someone's been a Republican since she was 18-19 years old.

So I've never been anything but that. I'm much more moderate than is Jonah. But the point is, I felt that I had a good background to be able to say then what I needed to say to white males, which was, you need to step back and check yourself a little bit because you look pretty scary right now. I mean, I think the week that Sonia Sotomayor was nominated, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh - Jonah, Newt Gingrich and others, kind of came out the woodwork and they just look wide-eyed and bushytailed.

And like you would've thought all hell had broken loose, excuse the expression, and it was simply the lady's just been nominated, let's hear what she has to say, let's examine her in the proper context, let's make sure she has a fair hearing. And let's not forget the context that we're operating in, Michel. I mean, there was a time in this nation's country - history, rather, not too long ago, when our Supreme Court sanctioned racism.

And I think that it is inflammatory for those on the right to continue to tell Americans, particularly Americans of a certain stripe, by that I mean mostly Caucasian, mostly rural Southern or Midwestern, good hardworking people who they say, you're being discriminated against, racial preferences, I hate that word. There's no word I hate more than that word.

MARTIN: Sophia, you're - Jonah and you are both expressing a hope, which is why we brought you two together, that something will happen in the way we talk about race. So what do you want to happen?

Ms. NELSON: I want us to - and I said this, and that's why I said "Open Letter To White Males." I want them to stop hyperventilating and feeling defensive. They have to stop that. That's point number one. Some of what Jonah says is true. I do think there's a double standard for white males. And we have to get beyond that. I think we have to encourage white males, as I say in my piece, to be able to talk openly about how they view things and allow that dialogue to go back and forth in a way so that people feel safe.

MARTIN: Do you see any sign of that happening?

Ms. NELSON: No.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with writers Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online, and Sophia Nelson of politicalintersection.com about how the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor is affecting our national conversation on race, how it should affect our national conversation on race. Jonah what about you? What do you want to happen so that we can have more productive conversations about race? And do you think that - you see any sign of what you would hope for happening?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I actually, first of all, taking the second question first. I think we are seeing progress. I think that, you know, Barack Obama's election, as profound as many of my disagreements are with him and what he's been doing since he's been elected, I think, and I wrote about this in the L.A. Times, it would just be silly not to celebrate the fact that we have the first African-American president. And it is amazing to me how quickly race has just evaporated as a major issue of his presidency. I'm sure it can back and we'll see there will be some flare up and what not. But that is simply not the main crux of how people are talking about his presidency on a daily basis, which is not something that you would have necessarily predicted certainly out of the blue 10 years ago if we had a black president.

I think the idea of race neutrality in every aspect of life is probably a pipe dream because people want to hang onto their heritage and all of the rest. But I think that a popular culture of equality is one that we should have. And I think that as - on a public policy front, I think one of the ways you get there is you have a government that is based on neutrality. But I think we have made a lot more progress. I think this is one of the best things Barack Obama is doing is talking about how there is racial progress.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask each of you for a final thought. And Jonah I started with you so I think it's probably more fair to let Sophia have the final word…

Mr. GOLDBERG: Sure.

MARTIN: …since you get the first word. Jonah here is the final line in your piece. Here is an idea, let's assume both sides have a serious and well-intentioned perspective and talk it out. Now, where should that conversation begin?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I think it should begin with these hearings. I mean, we'll have another opportunity, they come up every 20 minutes. But I think these hearings are going to be national focused, you know, conversation where everybody is going to be on their best behavior because the klieg lights are on and the cameras are on. We can talk about the Ritchie case about the firefighter and racial preferences and whatnot. And I think that would be a wonderful place to start.

MARTIN: Sophia, your piece ends this way, America is a great land. It was made great by the shed blood of white men, black men, Native American men, and men of every color and creed. Let us honor one another and explore our diversity of thought and opinion. Let's stop being victims of racism, sexism, bias, et cetera, start being Americans. All the name calling is beneath a true American gentleman. Let's appeal to people's better angels, not their worst fears, fellows. We will all be better for doing so. And you sign it, lots of love, your sister Sophia. How do you want this conversation to start or restart?

Ms. NELSON: Well, I think that we can move forward but I do think we have to give people the room to be honest. And I think we really have to stop throwing around the racist word because it has such a deeper meaning, what racism truly means and how wrongly used that word is by people. They just don't really have a concept of what the concept is of racism and what it means to be a racist.

MARTIN: Sophia Nelson is a former Republican Strategist. She is currently the editor-in-chief of the blog politicalintersection.com. She was kind enough to join us from Arlington, Virginia. Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and the author of "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning." He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. We'll have links to both of the articles we've been talking about today on our Web site, go to the TELL ME MORE tab at npr.org. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you, Michel.

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