Thursday, July 16, 2009

How Wise, This Latina?

The opening salvo in the formality known as the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings was an attack on Judge Sotomayor's impartiality.In particular, a 2001 speech in which she suggested that in some situations she hoped a “wise Latina” would make a better judgment than a white man. Republicans and their media mouthpieces, being contractually obligated to bash any Obama nomination, immediately took hold of this story and put it forth as an example of Sotomayor’s potential as an “activist” judge, and even used it to accuse her of racism.

It’s not surprising that the Republicans would take hold of this issue. There is little doubt that a white male justice who said he hoped that in certain cases a “wise white man” would make a better judgment than a Puerto Rican woman would be vilified by the left. The counterargument to this, of course, is that there is no comparable situation a white man could find himself in, since by the nature of our culture, white men do not come from an oppressed class and cannot experience oppression in the same way as a minority can. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I’d rather focus on Sotomayor’s critical statements.

Here’s the lecture quote that has everyone up in arms:

“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.”

She was referring specifically to cases of civil rights and discrimination, and responding to a quote of Sandra Day O’Connor’s that a wise man and a wise woman should come to the same conclusions when judging. The Sotomayor apologists would contend that she was simply saying that a white male does not have the breadth of cultural experience to equip him to fully understand the damages and dangers of institutionalized racism, not that they were in any way genetically inferior.

In her response to questioning on the issue, Sotomayor stated:

"I want to state upfront, unequivocally and without doubt: I do not believe that any racial, ethnic or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge, regardless of their background or life experiences."

So there you have it. That should be the end of the story. Unfortunately, what isn’t mentioned is that Sotomayor prefaced the “wise Latina” comment with this one:

“Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.”

That sure sounds like she thinks racial background makes a difference. Is she saying it makes a difference but that difference is not an advantage? Is it a disadvantage? Clearly she doesn’t think that.

Frankly I am more concerned with the double standard. I have no doubt that if any member of a “non-oppressed” class were to suggest that there are inherent physiological differences that have an effect on judgment, they would be ruthlessly attacked by the left. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. It also doesn’t mean that Sotomayor is a racist. What I think it does mean is that people should not be so quick to play the race card at the merest mention of genetic, physiological or social differences between those of different ethnicities.

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