In Defense of Sonia Sotomayor
by Yvette D. Carnell
There is nothing so demeaning to political discourse as the injection of race as a weapon, so I’ve become increasingly livid over the past few days while watching right wing hit squads refer to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a ‘racist”.
Moments after the White House announcement that President Obama was nominating Sontomayor to replace retiring Justice Souter, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich broadcast his objections via “Twitter”. He called Sotomayor a racist for a 2005 comment in which she stated “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."
Gingrich’s “tweet” was the shot heard round the world after which other Republicans, bloggers, and party leaders piled on to add to the chorus of ideologues accusing Sotomayor of racism. Even some liberals have suggested that Sotomayor will need to distance herself from her 2005 comment. As an African American woman, I disagree.
Sotomayor believes her race and culture give her a unique perspective which benefits her when deciding cases. To say that her experience colors her view of the world and therefore, her interpretation of the law, is not racist. It is human. Remember, the left wing criticism of Justice Roberts during his confirmation was that he too often sided with the powerful rather than with the people.
Chief Justice Roberts was raised in an affluent community and educated in private school before attending Harvard University. Yes, he excelled academically, but his privileged upbringing assured him that no matter what, success in his life was inevitable. It was Roberts’ life of entitlement which emboldened him to make racist and sexist jokes and to oppose civil rights and women’s rights. It could also be that his lack of exposure to women and African Americans who matched his wealth and pedigree inescapably lead to feelings of superiority.
The point here though is that to some extent, we all carry with us the weight and reflection of our collective experience. To say that Chief Justice Roberts’ judicial decisions aren’t influenced by his experience as a privileged white boy in much the same way that Sotomayor’s are influenced by her experience as a poor Latina girl is silly. Our experiences are our guide, that which we know to be true. To extend our experience beyond our personal life to that of our cultural or ethnic life is to acknowledge that our experience did not begin with us. Our link to humanity is based upon our willingness to absorb and learn from the experiences of those who came before us.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said “I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.”African Americans and Latinos could learn a lot from the Jewish people. First and foremost being, how not to be bullied into relinquishing our right to apply and share the lessons of our collective experience how we deem most useful. We are betraying the lessons of our ancestors by allowing the Rush Limbaughs of the world to sideline the incorporation of their anguished experience into our present day decision making.
Our experiences matter. An experience born of oppression is in stark contrast to one born of privilege. Sotomayor is not speaking from a place of race superiority by suggesting that the richness of her culture and ethnicity contribute to her legal analysis and may even cause her to reach a better conclusion than that of her white male counterparts. She is, in fact, owning her evolution. To evolve is to grow and growth is a consequence of expansion. In essence, what Sotomayor is asserting is that her experience has expanded her perspective and, therefore, expanded the groups of people with whom she can empathize.
Empathy is not just some warm and fuzzy impediment that we must overcome in favor of reason. It is an essential ingredient for anyone who wishes to sit on the bench of the highest court in the most powerful country in the world. It is absolutely necessary for someone in such an esteemed and awe-inspiring position to fully contemplate the impact of his or her decisions on America’s citizens. A citizenry which, ethnically, culturally, and economically, are among the most diverse of any country in the world. Empathy is the imaginative tool which assists us in identifying with the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of others.
In fact, it is not the empathy of Sonia Sotomayors that disturbs me, but the disconnect of Justices like Clarence Thomas. The degree to which Justice Thomas is disconnected from his own past is parallel to the lack of a much larger historical reference point. Such a void robs him of the internal compass from which to extend his own understanding.
Unlike Newt and Rush, I am not going to insert race into dialogue surrounding Sonia Sotomayor or Justice Thomas. But while we listen to them accuse Sotomayor and her supporters of racism, bias, and bigotry, it would behoove us to remember that the Republicans were the last ones to engage in identity politics by replacing Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas. How quickly we forget.