What do Barack Obama, Kamala Harris and Sonia Sotomayor have in common? They’ve all made groundbreaking strides in politics. Obama is, of course, the first black president. Kamala Harris is California’s first attorney general of black and South Asian descent, and Sonia Sotomayor is the first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court. Their rise to prominence underscores the progress that’s been made in both race relations and politics in the 21st century. During this same period, however, the amount of race-based political attacks and smear campaigns has risen. Evidently, not every segment of society is ready for change.
The funny thing about racist smear campaigns is that they don’t discriminate. Blacks, white, Republicans and Democrats have all been the victims of such underhanded political tactics. Take Arizona Sen. John McCain. In the 2000 presidential election, a whispering campaign targeting the senator insinuated that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter, Bridget, was actually an illegitimate child he fathered with a black woman. This rumor emerged as one of the reasons McCain lost the South Carolina primary to George W. Bush. When McCain faced off against Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh spread a rumor that Michelle Obama had been videotaped using the racial slur “whitey” but no such videotape existed. Still, those who wanted an excuse not to vote for the Obamas found one via this whisper campaign.
The story of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to be nominated to the Supreme Court, is inspirational. Raised by a single mother in a low-income section of the Bronx, Sotomayor attended a prestigious high school and went on to the Ivy League. From there, she began her legal career—working her way from lawyer to judge. After catching the eye of President Barack Obama, Sotomayor’s confirmation to the Supreme Court seemed inevitable. But when word spread that Sotomayor had described herself as a “wise Latina” with unique insight to make legal decisions in a speech years before, foes of the Obama administration twisted the remark to suggest that Sotomayor had argued she was wiser than her white counterparts. To thwart Sotomayor’s rise to the Supreme Court, conservatives not only scrutinized her words but her reputation for being a “difficult” judge. Feminists argued that the temperament of a male Supreme Court nominee likely would not have been raised as an issue. Despite efforts to brand Sotomayor as angry and anti-white, she held steady during the confirmation hearings and emerged in 2009 as the first Puerto Rican woman on the Supreme Court.
When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, many assumed that the United States had become a post-racial nation. In fact, the opposite was true. Because he was born to a white Kansan woman and a black Kenyan father in Hawaii, Obama’s religion, birthplace and ethnicity have all come under fire. Americans who resent the fact that a man of African descent is now president have accused Obama of being a Kenyan-born Muslim. Others have described the biracial Obama as an Arab. Arguing that Obama was born abroad is the only way birthers can argue that Obama is not fit to be president. In addition to these attacks, Obama has been denigrated in the same way that African Americans have for centuries. His image has been placed on pictures of chimps and shoe-shine men as well as on boxes of breakfast food mixes and signs advertising fried chicken. Rather than reveal a post-racial world, the election of the first black president revealed how much racism remains ingrained in the fabric of society.
Kamala Harris has been pegged as the “female Barack Obama.” Like the president, Harris is biracial—born to an African-American father and an Indian mother. She’s also primed to become a prominent figure in national politics. As San Francisco’s district attorney Harris made a name for herself as tough on crime. She even had the parents of truant children arrested. But Harris doesn’t just aim to lock people up but to prevent them from going back to prison with programs aimed at lowering the recidivism rate. Harris defeated Republican rival Steve Cooley to become California Attorney General in 2010. She’s the first woman of color to hold that position in the state.