Amid the anti-Mexican media hysteria festering since the outbreak of swine flu, Dave Letterman's portrayal last week of potential Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a hot-blooded Hispanic Judge Judy wasn't the ugliest stereotyping of Latinos. It was actually weak tea compared to the mouth-foamings of Jay Severin, the Boston radio host who called Mexicans "leeches," "the world's lowest of primitives," and exporters of "women with mustaches and VD." WTKK-FM has suspended but hasn't fired Severin, even as some advertisers have bailed.
No, Letterman's bit was far more mainstream, and more feasibly "acceptable" than, say, the kneeslappers of Betsy Perry, a branding consultant whose Huffpost musings about Mexican "banditos" and "the Mexican help with hands washed in parasite-infested tap water" resulted in Mayor Bloomberg axing her from the New York City Women's Issues Commission. Clearly, not all Perry's issues are about women. (She has since apologized.)
With the rightwing smuggling in the lie that immigrants are responsible for swine flu in the U.S. (when, in fact, it's been spread here primarily by Americans who've visited Mexico), Mexicans have been, of course, the prime target of the most rancid typecasting. But once the type has been cast, it has jumped easily to Latinos of any origins. A summa cum laude graduate at Princeton, an editor of the Yale Law Journal, now a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and a Bronx native raised by her single mom (like Obama), Sotomayor is of Puerto Rican descent, and so this:
Not even a gulp from the Morning Joe gang. Mika laughed, and Willie Geist mumbled something about "fit for the Supreme Court." We may never learn whether Sotomayor is or isn't "fit," because before we or the Senate Judiciary Committee see her in reality, we'll visualize that hot tamale from the courtroom TV show losing control of her fellow Hispanic hotheads.
This particular ethnic skewering seems out of character for Letterman, who often slices through idiot-think brilliantly. Maybe he was, as conservative blogger Ann Althouse suggests, "mocking the mocking of Sotomayor." What is up? I asked a Letterman show spokesperson, who answered, "We're going to decline comment on this."
Whatever Dave's intentions, the Sotomayor brand he's helped put into play seems to have grown out of a controversial post, "The Case Against Sotomayor," by The New Republic's legal correspondent Jeffrey Rosen. Relying primarily on anonymous former law clerks as sources and admitting that he didn't research Sotomayor's opinions much, Rosen nevertheless deduced that "the most consistent concern was that Sotomayor, although an able lawyer, was 'not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench.'" His unnamed sources, he wrote, questioned "her temperament...and most of all, her ability to provide an intellectual counterweight to the conservative justices." One of the unnamed said another unnamed said, "she's not the brainiest." From that, a National Review blogger further deduced that Sotomayor is "dumb and obnoxious."
Rosen has since backpedaled a bit, and testimonies to Sotomayor's intellect ("she'd be the kind of justice who could change some minds") and temperament ("one of the best mentors I've ever had") are coming in from named sources. But, as Media Matters asks, in a terrific, detailed piece, "Where does Sonia Sotomayor go to get her reputation back?" A TPM commenter adds, "It's this allegation about intelligence that most deeply plays into the hands of anti-'affirmative action' conservatives who just love to suggest that this woman, despite graduating summa cum laude at Princeton and so on, isn't as smart as a white guy."
Maybe playing fast and loose with Latino caricatures isn't the best idea in times of plague and economic dislocation. Remember how Jews were blamed for bringing the Black Death to Europe in the 14th century, setting off the mother of all pogroms?
Last week, Maria Hinojosa, senior correspondent for NOW on PBS and managing editor of NPR's Latino USA, spoke about how swine flu hysteria is hitting home. On New York radio's The Brian Lehrer Show, Hinojosa said a friend of hers, a domestic worker in Spanish Harlem, told her that she was recently "hassled by groups of women who said, 'Go ahead, tell them you're sick.'" Later that same day, she "was hassled again on the bus, and she saw a group of women physically push a Mexican man away."
"This has very human consequences," said Hinojosa, who is amazed that "in 2009...all of us here, suddenly we have to protect the lives of Americanos in New York City. It's crazy."
Hinojosa also cited the case of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant who was killed 10 months ago in the predominantly white town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, apparently for walking with a white woman.
"A group of teenagers beat him to a pulp, beating his head in till his brains came out," said Hinojosa. "All of them, last week, just a few hours from here, were found nonguilty, only guilty of lesser charges, and in the courtroom when that was announced there was a crowd of cheers and applause.
"That's the country that we live in and the area that encompasses all of us."
(Leslie Savan is a a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a contributor to The Nation.)
By Leslie Savan
Reprinted with permission from The Nation