Commentary: We're all Americans!
SAN DIEGO -- Sonia Sotomayor once said that, when she arrived at Princeton University fresh from the Bronx, she felt like "a visitor landing in an alien country."
Well, after needlessly subjecting Sotomayor to a four-day spectacle of interrogation, humiliation and condescension, the seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee should feel as if they were the ones who just visited an alien country.
It's startling just how sheltered many of our political leaders really are. With Latinos on the way to representing a third of the U.S. population by 2050, many in Congress are still acting as if it is 1950.
Given how they related to the Supreme Court nominee with curiosity and suspicion, you would think that the senators' preconceived notions of Latinas were limited to Hollywood images of the nanny, maid or seductress. Given how some of them seemed fearful of the group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, on whose board Sotomayor served for several years, you would think that these senators had never heard of a civil rights organization for Latinos even though there are other groups that serve African-Americans, gays and lesbians, the disabled, etc.
Blame their workplace. As senators, they're members of the ultimate private club where, as recently as 1992, only two of the 100 members were women and where, in 2009, 78 of the 100 seats are held by white males.
Blame the ethnic composition of the judiciary. It's a safe bet that Republicans on the committee -- and, for that matter, Democrats -- had never met a Latina federal judge with 17 years' experience on the bench. Latinos represent 15 percent of the U.S. population but only make up 7 percent of federal judges.
Blame demographics. Sotomayor's harshest critics -- Jeff Sessions from Alabama and Lindsey Graham from South Carolina -- represent states where the Latino populations are tiny but growing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2003 American Community Survey, Latinos accounted for just 1.9 percent of Alabama's population but 208 percent of population growth from 1990 to 2000. In South Carolina, Latinos represented 2.3 percent of population but 211 percent of the growth in the previous decade.
Whatever it was that caused the Republicans' blind spot, it is obvious that they need a crash course in Latinos 101. It was painful to watch them willingly surrender any shred of credit that the GOP deserves for putting Sotomayor on the road to make history as the first Latina Supreme Court justice. It was a Republican president -- George H.W. Bush -- who nominated Sotomayor to the federal bench in 1991. If the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were smart, they would have mentioned that fact over and over again to advance the notion that Republicans also at times open doors for women and minorities. Instead of playing up the idea of the GOP being a big tent, they advertised it as a restricted club.
It's a sad and familiar story. In 2002, after Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi suggested that the United States would have been much better off if segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan confessed: "I am personally tired of being embarrassed by people ... who don't get what the history of race in America is, what integration has meant, what segregation was. I'm tired of being embarrassed by Republicans ... who don't get it."
Now, I'm feeling a little tired myself. I'm tired of how elected officials in both parties -- but especially Republicans -- treat the country's largest minority as some sort of new and exotic stitch in the American fabric. I'm tired of how the ruling class always misses the fact that Latinos have been in the United States since the Revolutionary War and are indigenous to the Southwest. And I'm tired about how, when it comes to the human condition, the American people are so much more enlightened than those who represent them.
All week I've been hearing from readers -- including some who claimed to be conservatives -- who said they were shocked at the ignorance that Republican senators showed during their questioning of Sotomayor. Some talked about having served in the military with Latinos or teaching them in public schools or working alongside them. And they all said that, as a result of that kind of exposure, they had come to realize that Latinos aren't a recent addition to America. They are America.
Senators, welcome to America.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.