'Racism,' In Context

You've surely heard the heads exploding by now. "She's a racist!" "Maria, er, Sonia Sotomayor said she's smarter than white men!" She made "an unambiguous statement of bigotry."

That last quote came from a Northside Sun editorial, in a paper serving largely white areas of Jackson and the suburbs. In recent months and years, Sun columnists have said that blacks should give thanks for slavery, and compared President Obama to a Muslim Hitler. Publisher Wyatt Emmerich recently wrote that black people "need to learn how to work and interact fluidly with whites" in order not to be disadvantaged, and blamed federal intervention for school-integration problems.

No, sir. No race card-playing there.

The Sun editorial included no context for that 32-word sentence, which some conservatives have cherry-picked out of a 4,021-word speech Sotomayor gave in 2001 at the University of California at Berkeley. The quote: "Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

You would think the word "Second" might lead smart people to read the entire speech to see the context of her statement.

It's remarkable in 2009 to encounter people who cannot see that everything from a Supreme Court to newspaper management benefits from diversity and from drawing insights from people with varied backgrounds. Being Latina—which is not a "race," which the Sun did seem to understand at least—clearly can helps a judge make "better" decisions on issues involving communities historically discriminated against by a majority culture, as will being a woman, or being black, or being gay, or from another minority group.

Had Emmerich read Sotomayor's full speech, he would have found that she didn't make a controversial proclamation out of context (unlike his editorial). Her speech, which is entitled "Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation," is exactly about how the judiciary has not traditionally been attuned to the rights of disadvantaged groups, in no small part because members of the white, male dominant culture have monopolized it.

Sorry, guys, but that's fact.

Sotomayor's speech: "I was born in the year 1954. That year was the fateful year in which Brown v. Board of Education was decided. When I was 8, in 1961, the first Latino, the wonderful Judge Reynaldo Garza, was appointed to the federal bench, an event we are celebrating at this conference. When I finished law school in 1979, there were no women judges on the Supreme Court or on the highest court of my home state, New York."

She adds: "For women of color the statistics are more sobering. As of September 20, 1998, of the then 195 circuit court judges only two were African American women and two Hispanic women. Of the 641 district court judges only 12 were African American women and 11 Hispanic women. African American women comprise only 1.56 percent of the federal judiciary and Hispanic-American women comprise only 1 percent. No African American, male or female, sits today on the Fourth or Federal circuits. And no Hispanics, male or female, sit on the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, District of Columbia or Federal Circuits."

It doesn't take a bean-counter to see the jaw-dropping disparities here.

Her speech then addressed what it all really means: that many perspectives simply do not get to the table. It's not because all white men are stupid or bigoted; it's simply because our personal experiences affect how we think and reason, and whether we can see outside our own bubbles. "I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that—it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others," she said.

Therein lies the so-called "bigotry," as the Sun called it, of the nominee to be the next U.S. Supreme Court justice. She is willing to admit that we all bring different experiences to the table, and that we need those varied—not all white or Latino or black—voices at the table. Radical, huh?

Then the quote Rush Limbaugh loves to mangle, here in context: "Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

That last sentence can sting, but that doesn't mean that it's false. A white man who has lived a privileged life, not victimized by a culture socialized to keep him "in his place," is going to "more often than not" have a harder time making compassionate, informed decisions about situations he has not experienced. For a white man to blindly ignore the point that the judiciary needs a diversity of thinkers of many backgrounds—she isn't arguing for all Latina women judges, for God's sake—sadly makes her point better than she did.

Furthermore, Sotomayor gives white male judges their due, including on cases that changed our nation and our state for the better, and warned of ethnic myopia: "Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case.

"I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown."

She then makes the perfect retort to the Emmerichs and Limbaughs, who lift her out of context for political theater: "However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others.

"Others simply do not care."


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