The Right’s Race-Baiting Assault on Sotomayor

Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has a long history of questionable statements about race. He once quipped that he “used to think [the KKK] were OK” until he found out some of them were “pot smokers.” He routinely referred to an African-American attorney who worked for him as “boy,” and he once warned that attorney to “be careful what you say to white folks” after Sessions overheard him chastising a white secretary. Today, at Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing, Sessions wondered aloud how Sotomayor could have voted differently than another judge of “Puerto Rican ancestry.”

So it is very odd that conservatives would choose Sessions as their point person on the Sotomayor nomination. At best this choice is laughably tone deaf. At worst it shows that Senate conservatives wholeheartedly embrace Sessions’ views on race.

It is crystal clear, however, that Sessions is the architect of the conservative strategy against Sotomayor. In a campaign that echoes Lee Atwater’s infamous Willie Horton ad and Jesse Helms’ “white hands” ad, today’s attacks on Sotomayor have focused almost exclusively on race. Nevermind that conservatives have only uncovered one case in Sotomayor’s record, Ricci v. DeStefano, which supposedly supports their claim that Sotomayor is biased against white men. And nevermind that Sotomayor simply followed a 1984 precedent which is nearly identical to Ricci when she decided that case. Apparently conservatives believe the facts must take a backseat to race-baiting.

There is no doubt that the American people will reject this antiquated strategy, just like the Senate rejected Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench in 1986. Twenty-three years later, conservatives are still living in the past.

Ian Millhiser is a Legal Research Analyst at American Progress.

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