Questions of ethnic heritage began on day one of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, as media outlets remarked on the first-ever nomination and both political parties debated the implications of Obama’s choice.
And throughout the nomination process, Hispanics remained closely tied to the coverage. About half (48%) of stories about Sonia Sotomayor included a significant mention of her Hispanic heritage.
Most of the Hispanic references in stories about the nomination, indeed, were aimed directly at the nominee and the role that her ethnic heritage could play in the confirmation process.
The first rush of stories following the May 26 announcement nearly all remarked on the historic potential for the first-ever Hispanic Supreme Court justice. NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams, for example, opened the May 26 newscast with, “President Obama makes history by choosing Sonia Sotomayor for the United States Supreme Court. Raised in New York City public housing, will she be confirmed as the first Hispanic woman on the high court?”
Brett Baier of the Fox News Special Report also led off his May 26 broadcast by commenting on the historic significance of Obama’s choice: “The nation’s first African-American president today nominated the person who could become the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice and only the third woman to serve on the high court.”
Spokane’s Spokesman Review likewise remarked that Sotomayor “would be the first Hispanic justice on the high court” but also sought out the opinion of the Hispanic community. The Latino advocacy group Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary praised Obama and Sotomayor, telling the Spokesman Review, “The president deserves praise for working to make a Hispanic voice heard in the exclusive chambers of our nation’s highest court.”
By the next day, much of the media had concluded that Sotomayor’s race would be a stumbling block for Republicans opposed to her confirmation. As a May 27 Associated Press article in the Meadville Tribune summarized, “Republicans, at sea as a party and having lost ground with Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the population, will have a hard time defeating the woman who would be the first Hispanic justice. And the inevitable partisan fights over Sotomayor’s nomination hold heavy risks for a party striving to draw beyond its mostly white, Southern and conservative base.”
The notion that race was too much a part of Sotomayor’s legal thinking became a major talking point and dividing line in the media debate.
On the May 26 edition of Hardball, for example, Pat Buchanan said that he thought Sotomayor’s statements about her race and gender should disqualify her. “I’m saying that she herself says that her gender and her ethnicity will influence her decision, and that would be for me a disqualification for the Supreme Court. She is an affirmative action pick… Clearly the President was down to four choices, all of them women, and he picked the Hispanic.”
Yet almost all of these were matched by defenses by Democrats or liberal commentators backing her nomination, such as the answer by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), responding to such claims in a May 27 interview on the Today Show: “It’s not fair at all. She is just top-notch legally…and her record on the bench is outstanding.”
While the high-profile commotion over Sotomayor’s nomination took place in the newspapers and airwaves, a quieter but nevertheless impassioned debate was taking place online about whether Sotomayor was actually the first Hispanic on the court, or if one should count former Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who was of Portuguese descent. At the heart of this discussion was the question of the meaning of “Hispanic.”
On the Wall Street Journal’s law blog, Harvard Law professor Andrew Kaufman gave a decidedly undecided answer: “I have had many long conversations with a variety of newspaper people about whether Cardozo was the first whatever-name-you-want-to-use. It’s all in the context.”
Adding to the semantic discussion was the Los Angeles Times, which ran a May 31 article asking this very question, entitled “Would Sotomayor really be the first Supreme Court Latino?” The paper was then forced to run a correction on June 2, as an editor had changed the reporter’s references from “Hispanics” to “Latinos.” The correction stated, “The article referred to a semantic debate over whether Sotomayor was the first Hispanic to be nominated to the Supreme Court and not Cardozo. The article should have said that advocacy groups praised Sotomayor, a New York-born Puerto Rican, as the first Hispanic, which prompted political opponents to argue that Cardozo’s Portuguese heritage qualified him as the first Hispanic.”
(A May 2009 report released by the Pew Hispanic Center explains that the question can be boiled down to who is creating the definitions, distinguishing between the Census Bureau’s approach to defining a person as Hispanic “You are if you say so” and the more concrete OMB definition, which distinguishes between countries of origin in determining ethnicity.) Read more about this subject in the Pew Hispanic Center’s May report on the topic.
After the initial wave of excitement created by her nomination, coverage dropped gradually, only to see another large spike in July, during Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. Once again, her Hispanic heritage featured heavily in the discussion as senators questioned Sotomayor in particular about remarks she made eight years ago about her Hispanic heritage. In a 2001 address to the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, Judge Sotomayor stated, “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.”
These comments, along with Sotomayor’s decision on a case about racial profiling at a fire department in Connecticut, brought about allegations that Sonia Sotomayor herself was a racist. Much of this keyed on her speech at Berkeley.
Indeed, in a separate analysis run for PEJ by a team of academics from Cornell and Stanford of the most repeated concepts in the media during this period, the term “wise Latina” ranked fourth out of all the concepts captured. Through a new technology-based media analysis system called “Meme-tracker,” the team examines a much wider swath of media—1.6 million media sites and blogs—and can identify and track the most frequently quoted phrases and concepts resonating throughout the media. Through a process of identifying the phrases and then searching for the words around them and similar ideas that might have come from other people, the researchers identify what they call “memes,” a word derived from the Greek word mimema, that in the internet age has been adopted to mean cultural idea. They found that from February 1 through July 3, the quote “wise Latina” was repeated more than 2,500 times, coming in behind only three other phrases, all of which came from President Obama’s public remarks.
This politicization of race caused frustration among some conservative news personalities. On The O’Reilly Factor on July 15, Fox commentator Monica Crowley voiced a common opinion among some pundits, as she wondered if “white guilt” contributed to Sotomayor’s nomination and popularity: “Given the politically correct multicultural environment in America today,” said Crowley, “the most radical thing President Obama could have done is nominate a white guy to the court.”
One aspect of the coverage of the Sotomayor nomination was the propensity of the press to make comparisons in order to more easily gauge the political climate at the unprecedented prospect of a Latina on the Supreme Court. Outlets both liberal and conservative searched for reference points to other politically successful women and minorities in their debates and predictions surrounding Sotomayor’s nomination and confirmation.
On O’Reilly, for instance, Crowley compared Sotomayor to people she considered to be more conservative and to have sustained a tougher beating in the political arena, such as failed Bush Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and sitting Justice Clarence Thomas.
But some more liberal outlets used this same tactic to make opposite points about the prospects for ethnic minorities, as well as women, in political appointments. Keith Olbermann often expressed anger at what he considered to be unfair right-wing charges of “reverse racism” on Sotomayor. On a May 27 episode of Countdown, Olbermann made his own comparison of Sotomayor to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, complaining that Democrats during Gonzales’ confirmation feared charges of racism themselves: “Four years ago, we were being told that Alberto Gonzales had to be confirmed as attorney general for Mr. Bush and if you questioned what were truly sketchy credentials, you were an anti-Hispanic racist.”
For all the conversation about race and, to a lesser extent, gender, though, the likelihood of Sotomayor’s confirmation itself was never seriously in question. This, along with her controversial comments about ethnicity and the law, may have helped create an atmosphere in which race became a central part of the debate.