As we are all too aware, as soon as — and perhaps even before — President Barack Obama announced his nominee for the Supreme Court, some mischief-maker had the brilliant idea to isolate and circulate a single, easily misconstrued sentence from a speech Judge Sonia Sotomayor delivered in 2001. Immediately after that, people like Newt Gingrich took the bait and made themselves look ridiculous by calling Sonia Sotomayor a racist. More careful representatives for the opposition eschewed such inflammatory excesses, saying instead that they were troubled by what such a statement revealed about Sotomayor’s “philosophy.” Gingrich is doing something similar now, walking back his original insult ever-so-slightly (and disingenuously) and claiming, instead, that he wants to focus on his serious concerns about Sotomayor’s fitness for the bench.
The word “racist” should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable (a fact which both President Obama and his Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, have since admitted).
So it is to her words — the ones quoted above and others — to which we should turn, for they show that the issue here is not racial identity politics. Sotomayor’s words reveal a betrayal of a fundamental principle of the American system — that everyone is equal before the law.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that — as Eduardo Penalver has already argued — it’s nearly as absurd to infer a comprehensive, and controversial, judicial philosophy from the famous quoted-out-of-context sentence about “a wise Latina woman” as it is to infer racist intent.
Part of the reason this is true is that, in saying “…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,” Sotomayor was not offering her response to the question, “What is your judicial philosophy?” She was exploring the ramifications of her own belief that personal experiences do affect individuals’ thoughts and decisions. She says as much right there in the transcript: “The focus of my speech tonight… [is] to discuss with you what it all will mean to have more women and people of color on the bench.” She was ruminating on that topic not because she denies that “everyone is equal before the law,” and not because she is given to obsessing about her minority credentials whenever she has the chance, but because she was delivering the keynote address at a symposium entitled “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation.” It’s no surprise she found herself talking about her background in that context, and no rational person should interpret it to mean that — as Roll Call reported the concerns of Sen. Lindsey Graham — “she may not treat white males fairly.”
I know we’ve been over this before, and at this point rational people are probably not confused. But I bring it up because there’s an article at Slate by Monica Youn that I think provides some useful context, if (like me) you’re still thinking about this kerfuffle: “The Invitation You Can’t Refuse: Why Sonia Sotomayor was talking about race in the first place.”
Recent years have seen a depressing pattern in which notable “ethnic” political figures–from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on down–end up having to extricate themselves from the tangles of racial politics, defending themselves from charges of “reverse racism,” “identity politics,” or the like. This may have much to do with the fact that, unlike their “nonethnic” counterparts, such “minority role models” are regularly asked to put on the public record — at lunches, award ceremonies, community events — lengthy statements of their views on America’s most explosive topic: race.
Imagine Chief Justice John Roberts being invited by members of his own cultural network to deliver remarks for the Honorable William H. Rehnquist Law & Cultural Diversity Memorial Lecture on what special qualities white men bring to the bench: “What makes your approach, as a white male, different from that of your black judicial colleagues?” “Does being a white man give you special insight into the perspective of white male defendants in discrimination cases?” “Has the presence of white men on the bench made any difference in American law?” Odds are he wouldn’t last two minutes before treading on someone’s sensibilities. But this political high-wire act is expected from minority figures as a matter of course.
Of course, the risks of that “high-wire act” aren’t precisely the same for minorities as they would be for white males… And it’s also true, I think, that non-minorities generally face greater pressure to avoid identity-politics controversies in situations where they haven’t been invited to address those issues directly. But that goes back to the main point here, which is that, when we talk about power, government, or the law, we are dealing with a situation where there are minority groups — many of them, sometimes overlapping, with long histories — and pretending that’s not the case, even for noble reasons, isn’t especially helpful. As Julian Sanchez put it:
I find the “what if a white man said that?” move incredibly grating about 99 percent of the time it’s used, because it’s almost always a way of blotting out all the reasons that it would, in fact, be different. In the instance, it would be weird for a white man to say it because it’s probably not true that the experience of growing up as a white male in the United States specifically enhances one’s understanding of what it means to be a disfavored minority. In other words, it just wouldn’t be true or reasonable in this case—though it might be for a white male who grew up as a religious or ethnic minority somewhere else in the world. So yes, sometimes formally grammatically equivalent statements will have different connotations depending on whether it’s a white person speaking about whites or a Latino speaking about Latinos, because history happened.
Kathleen Parker was pithier:
Could a white man get away with saying something comparable about a Latina? Of course not. After Latinas have run the world for 2,000 years, they won’t be able to say it ever again either.