Daniel Larison and I disagreed over whether there was anything to the Sonia Sotomayor “wise Latina” brouhaha, so not surprisingly we disagree about this: “What was more striking about the campaign to derail Sotomayor, which failed yesterday as everyone knew it would, was how it opened conservatives up to the most absurd, baseless charges of racism and lowered the standard by which an idea, statement or action should be considered racist.” Consequently, conservatives are in a worse position to rebut Paul Krugman’s imputation of racism to the most vocal opponents of the Democratic health care plan.
But Krugman’s complaint has been a staple of liberal denunciations of conservatism since National Review sided with the South against the civil-rights movement, since Barry Goldwater won the Deep South after voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, since Richard Nixon and the “Southern Strategy,” since Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens” and campaigned in a Mississippi town where civil-rights workers had been murdered, since George H.W. Bush and the Willie Horton ad, since Jesse Helms ran the “white hands” ad, since George W. Bush didn’t sign onto a hate crimes bill bearing James Byrd’s name, since Trent Lott wished Strom Thurmond a happy birthday — all events far predating Sonia Sotomayor.
The only lowering of the bar that might have taken place is that each of the above controversies had an unmistakable racial element, just like Sotomayor’s much-criticized comments (abandoned during her confirmation hearings). Krugman is charging racism where no explicit mention of race has even been made. But this line of argument predates the Sotomayor debate too. Krugman himself was making it before Sotomayor. The notions that conservative populism is inherently racist and so is criticizing a liberal black president are not new.
Perhaps conservatives will find it harder to push back against the Krugmans of the world after their criticisms of Sotomayor — and I happen to think there are better examples of Republicans unjustly crying racism (subscription required) than that particular case. But I don’t see the evidence. Look no further than the comments thread on Daniel’s post: there are plenty of liberals who simultaneously find nothing wrong Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” speech and think culturally conservative statements are basically racist.