Notes from the Perimeter

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fear & Loathing, Latina Style


No doubt even in the remotest reaches of the New Guinean rainforest folks have heard of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s controversy-igniting remark: “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.” Much teeth-gnashing has ensued over her use of the word better; Sotomayor has been subjected to charges ranging from reverse racism to practicing identity politics to suggesting that a judge’s life trajectory might influence his or her decisions: She thinks she knows better than a MAN! Than a WHITE man! The effrontery!

Some of the pundits commenting upon Sotomayor’s remark (a surprising number of them white guys) have noted that if a white man had claimed that he was “better” than a woman in matters judicial all manner of outrage would erupt. Really? Isn’t the history of the Supreme Court one in which the subtext is a presumption of male superiority, white male superiority at that? Of the 110 justices in the Court’s history, 106 have been, yes, pallid and of the manly persuasion. The remaining four comprise two African Americans and two women – there have been no Asians, Native Americans or Hispanics (with the possible exception of Benjamin Cardozo whose Portuguese ethnicity is disputed). Men of European descent, anointed by wealth and privilege, have influenced the development of our national ideas about law, equality, responsibility and opportunity far more than any other group. Fellas, I’m having a tough time feeling your pain.

Racists, reverse and otherwise, and identity politickers share a common characteristic: they engage in groupthink. These people ignore nuance and reduce complexity to an ignorantly simplistic (and ugly) view of the world. In her life and career, Sotomayor has exhibited a fierce independence. These charges are ultra-rightwing-speak for women who aspire to break through those glass gates that protect exclusively male enclaves. What they’re actually calling her is “bitch” – a pejorative that has no true male equivalent.

Regarding the notion that a justice should be aloof from circumstance, utterly rational and somehow embodying a godlike perspective, I offer Samuel Alito’s testimony during his 2006 confirmation hearing. Alito readily admitted that his experiences as the child of immigrant parents shaped his view of the world and no doubt influenced his perspective on cases. Since in some quarters he had been perceived as cold and unfeeling, he made this assertion to the Senate in an attempt to appear more human, more compassionate…dare I say wiser?

The point that seems to be missed in this debate is that Sotomayor referenced wisdom above gender and ethnicity. She didn’t say a smart Latina woman – she said wise. Wisdom is the ability to “make sensible decisions and judgments on the basis of knowledge and experience” (Word®). Sotomayor has frequently discussed her commitment to impartiality. By nearly all accounts she has a brilliant legal mind. Despite her own personal narrative, a review of her decisions over her seventeen-year career as a judge reveals no ideological pattern: she doesn’t favor minorities or exhibit an anti-business bias. If her paper trail is any indication, she’s no dreaded “activist judge” but consistently demonstrates fairness and the integrity to acknowledge and learn from mistakes.

In Sotomayor’s case, it would seem that intelligence, knowledge, common sensibility, and the gumption to transcend difficult circumstances and continue to challenge herself have coalesced to create the matchless quality of wisdom in the character of this Latina. I, for one, welcome her judgment on the Court.

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