Earlier today, President Obama spoke separately with Sgt. J.P. Crowley and Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a bid to defuse the controversy over the July 16 arrest of Gates, a Harvard professor. According to the White House, both Crowley and Gates were invited to jointly meet with the president in "the near future," perhaps share a beer and presumably hash out any lingering misunderstandings.
It was happenstance, but the latest developments hit the wires just as Orin Hatch and John Cornyn, fellow Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced their opposition to Sonia Sotomayor's candidacy to replace the retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court.
Now it's true, of course, that on the surface the Senators' decision is unconnected either to Sotomayor's race or ethnicity. These just happen to be a couple of conservative Republicans who oppose her judicial outlook. Nothing untoward about that. (Liberal Democrats didn't cotton to John Roberts or Samuel Alito during their confirmation hearings because of their more right-leaning ideology.) What's more, Hatch and Cornyn would eagerly have supported someone like Miguel Estrada, whose nomination by George W. Bush to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was filibustered to death by Democrats in 2003.
But it's never so cut and dry. Even if we wanted to ignore race and ethnic identity as relevant considerations in the Sotomayor vote, the Gates arrest and the ensuing political storm over President Obama's comments on the case have pushed the question of race to front and center.
It's still such a hot potato that the president felt the need to drop by the White House briefing room to speak with reporters this afternoon. While he didn't formally apologize, President Obama retreated from his initial statement that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates. While he acknowledged regret for his choice of words, the president also pointed out that the passionate response to his remarks underscored how much race remains "a troubling aspect of our society."
Talk about understatement. Only last month we saw the upset over Sotomayor's comments on how her experiences as a Latina have helped shape her views as a judge. Hatch, Cornyn and most of their fellow Senate Republicans recoiled at Sotomayor's comment in a 2001 speech that she hoped "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion" than someone without that background.
That episode helped remind everyone of society's uncomfortable coexistence with affirmative action programs.
When fireman Frank Ricci testified at the Sotomayor hearing, he gave voice to that frustration. "It only divides people who don't wish to be divided along racial lines," he said. "The very reason we have civil service rules is to root politics, discrimination and nepotism. Our case demonstrates that these ills will exist if the rules of merit and the law are not followed."
Senate Democrats have the votes and Sotomayor's confirmation is a shoo-in. But the debate over her suitability to sit on the Supreme Court as well as the new questions about racial profiling dredged up by the Gates controversy underscore the president's apercu that race remains a very sensitive issue in America.
Whether this holds the potential for becoming a "teachable moment" as the president suggested - well, maybe with the aid of a few cold beers he can attempt a start.