(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Republicans are losing their minds. How else to explain the transparency in their vicious attacks on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor?

What makes the charges of racism lodged by Newt Gingrich – who has since said he was wrong to call Sotomayor a racist – and promulgated by radio host Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives dangerous is the history of virulent racism utilized by Republicans and their ability to divide and conquer that was most recently on display and almost succeeded during the 2008 presidential campaign. Understanding what makes them wrong, however, helps to neutralize their impact on the national psyche.

The Republicans are wrong in calling Sotomayor racist because no woman of Puerto Rican heritage who was raised in a Bronx housing project is powerful enough to be racist. Even one who went to private schools. Even one who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton. Even one who has been nominated to serve on the highest court in the land. Even her.

The fact is, very few individuals are powerful enough to be racist. Race is a political construction; the Human Genome Project proves that, biologically, there is no such thing as race. What plagues America is the persistence of institutionalized racism and the effective means of exploiting our nation’s racist past as employed by individuals most likely to benefit from the social construction of race difference. Sonia ain’t one of those individuals.

Indeed, her professional ascent can only be impeded by institutionalized racism. Like most Americans, including middle, working, and low-income whites, racialist thinking, particularly when it leads to racialist decisions, would only cap her professional ambitions.
Sotomayor could be prejudiced, but her record seems to suggest that she is not.

This is the difference: Folk express prejudice when they say something like, ‘I hate Black people.’ Folk wield racism when they say, ‘I hate Black people, so I’m going to prevent them from getting a job here, getting a home here, living their natural born lives here.’

Racism denotes power. A racist is able to effectively prohibit the life, the liberty, and/or the pursuit of happiness of The Other because the racist is powerful enough to do so. Prejudiced people might hurt your feelings, but they can’t do anything with those feelings, like, say, prevent you from voting. Racism disables. Racist people can keep you from voting and be slick enough to make you think you were the one who made the decision not to register and go to the polls. Racism pulls the rug out from under you and, very often, makes you feel like it was your fault for falling.

When Limbaugh, Gingrich, and their buddies spit the word racist and the name Sotomayor in the same sentence, they are reinforcing the institutionalized racism that still fortifies the system controllers, those who own and control the media, Wall Street and the business sector, education, insurance companies and the health care system, and (yes, even with a Black president) the government.

While the Republicans are on the decline, and racialist thinking is dying out with the old guys who still grip difference with both fists as they pull in their last breaths, it will take more than one administration to change what 400 years have wrought. That an Obama presidency will not magically eliminate the persistence of institutionalized racism has only become more evident with the public discourse over Sotomayor’s nomination.

While we as a nation should be cheering in the streets for the symbolic and real value of Sotomayor’s nomination and, hopefully, confirmation, the persistence of powerful racists has us twisting back, around and around, in circles of language and feeling and hurt and nonsense. The real dog and pony trick here? They have those of us who would benefit most from Sotomayor’s confirmation calling her the R-word.

This piece was originally published at Eisa Ulen’s blog>