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Yes, let's have that talk on race

Liberals often call for dialogue, but, as Sotomayor case shows, only on their terms.

Jonah Goldberg

is editor-at-large of National Review Online and the author of "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning"

For decades, America's liberal establishment has been saying that what we need more than anything is a frank conversation about race. Well, here's another chance.

Ever since the Kerner Commission in 1967, we've been hearing how Americans need to air their racial views. After the L.A. riots, Hurricane Katrina, and every other racially loaded event, we heard this refrain. President Bill Clinton launched an official national conversation on race, but he clammed up once conservatives started talking frankly and winning the argument.

During the presidential contest last year, Barack Obama delivered his now-mythic "race speech." It was hailed everywhere as the beginning of that long-overdue conversation. Rep. Barbara Lee (D., Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the address "set forth a road map on how to look at race within the context of public policy." But then Obama tried his best to never mention race again during the campaign.

Attorney General Eric Holder used Black History Month to deliver a racial jeremiad, accusing America of being a "nation of cowards" for not talking more honestly about race.

And now we have Sonia Sotomayor. It has been reported that Obama's Supreme Court pick has long been his first choice for the court. This suggests that the president is well aware of her views and that she personifies his views of how the courts should dispense justice.

Which brings us to Sotomayor's now-infamous line that she would hope a wise Latina would make better decisions than a wise white man. In the same speech, she somewhat favorably considered the possibility that there are "physiological or cultural differences" between races or sexes that make some people better at some things (like judging) than others.

What is the president's response? To lead a nation of cowards.

Obama says he's sure Sotomayor would "restate" her views (which technically means she would repeat the same idea in different words). White House allies have carried this further, saying she "misspoke" (in the words of Democratic spinner Lanny Davis). The Washington Post reports her comments were "unscripted."

But this is flatly untrue. Sotomayor's comments were literally scripted - for a lecture. She then published that speech in a law journal. It is apparent she meant what she said. If a white judge ever said anything similar, his career would be over. And, as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy notes, any typical citizen who said anything of the sort would be dismissed from a jury pool.

It may go too far to call her a racist - not necessarily because she doesn't fit the technical definition, but because she doesn't fit the popular, emotional definition of one. She's not an evil bigot, which is what the word racist colloquially suggests.

So maybe we can call her a "racialist." She certainly doesn't seem to believe in official color blindness. Just ask Frank Ricci, the firefighter denied a promotion simply because he's white. He sought justice in her court, but Sotomayor couldn't muster the requisite empathy to give him a fair hearing.

There is a lot more to Sotomayor's views on race that seems worth talking about, and her record is far from indefensible. In many ways, she's a perfectly mainstream liberal jurist. All the more reason liberals should defend her positions openly, rather than dismiss or deny them.

Obama and the Democratic Party indisputably share the broad outlines of her approach to racial issues. But rather than calmly defend her, they hide behind the robes of the first Latina Supreme Court pick and shout "bigot" at anyone who fails to throw rose petals at her feet.

And that is pretty much what liberals always do when it comes to race. They invite everyone to a big, open-minded conversation, but the moment anyone disagrees with them, they shout "racist" and force the dissenters to figuratively don dunce caps and renounce their reactionary views. Then, when the furor dies down, they again offer up grave lamentations about the lack of "honest dialogue." It's a mixture of Kabuki dance and whack-a-mole.

The irony of the current brouhaha is that the roles are somewhat reversed. Conservatives are shouting "racist," and liberals are scrambling to explain themselves.

I'm willing to concede, happily, that liberals aren't cartoonish villains for believing that certain preferred minorities deserve special treatment under the law. Unfortunately, too many liberals are unwilling to offer the same courtesy in return.

So here's an idea. Let's assume both sides have a serious and well-intentioned perspective and talk it out. Now.