Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sotomayor is, in fact, not a racist

The conversation:

Friend: What are you doing right now?

Me: Writing. Looking for work.

Friend: What are you writing about?

Me: I’m writing about why Midwesterners are so fat.

Friend: [Pauses here, doesn’t sound interested in delving into the mysteries of obesity.] Why don’t you blog about Sotomayor’s comment about a Latina woman showing better judgment than a white male. Ponder that one for a bit.

Me: Look, there are going to be controversies like that for every nominee to the Supreme Court.

Friend: Yes, there will be, but look at her statement. Examine the reverse of that, what if a white man—

Me: [Interrupting] I know. I’ve heard that by now.

Friend: Well, think about it. Maybe write about it. She’s getting a free pass by the media.

Me: She may be, but she isn’t going to be getting a free pass at her confirmation hearing. Plus, I’ve enjoyed not writing about politics lately.

After that conversation, I was adamant that I wouldn’t write about these issues. But the more I thought about the Sotomayor quote, which is now the cornerstone of the Right’s attack on her, I felt some further examination was necessary because, to tell you the truth, I didn’t like the sound of it at all. Not surprisingly, of the snippets from the media that I have seen, read, or heard, the actual quote is often given to you with some key words missing.

The Evidence:

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” – Sonia Sotomayor in a 2001 speech.

The full text of the speech can be found here, but I will reproduce important passages later on.

The Conclusion:

Finally, after reading her exact words for the first time, I can see nothing worrisome about them.  She seems to be saying that a white man wouldn’t know the first thing about living a life as a Latina woman and, when it comes to making decisions regarding minorities, the “wise” Latina woman will exhibit better judgment than her white male counterpart.

Rod Dreher of Crunchy Con points out that, in the same speech, Sotomayor says that she recognizes:

 …The potential effect of individual experiences on perception, Judge Cedarbaum nevertheless believes that judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices and aspire to achieve a greater degree of fairness and integrity based on the reason of law. Although I agree with and attempt to work toward Judge Cedarbaum’s aspiration, I wonder whether achieving that goal is possible in all or even in most cases.

Dreher adds:

Taken in context, the speech was about how the context in which we were raised affects how judges see the world, and that it’s unrealistic to pretend otherwise. Yet—and this is a key point—she admits that as a jurist, one is obligated to strive for neutrality.

I am very comforted by a judge who speaks candidly about the difficulty of having a truly objective stance. I believe humans are too emotional to have a completely neutral stance. Heck, even in the new Star Trek movie Spock craters to emotion.

Many conservatives don’t seem so comforted. Greg Sargent reports on his blog that Rush Limbaugh called Sotomayor a “reverse racist” who “has put down white men in favor of Latina women.” He also quotes Fox News’ Megyn Kelly as saying that it shows that Sotomayor thinks “that Latina judges are obviously better than white male judges.”

Sargent then goes on to show that these conclusions are much more ridiculous than Sotomayor’s statement is accused of being:

Read in context, it’s clear that Sotomayor was merely saying that it’s inevitable that a judge’s personal race-based and gender-based experiences will impact judging, particularly in race and sex discrimination cases. As a result, she said, while such formative experiences can be enriching and contribute to wise decisions, a judge should also be aware of them in order to avoid being wholly dominated by them. She vowed “complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives.”

Sotomayor also says, “I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences, but I accept my limitations.”

I concede, Sotomayor’s choice of wording isn’t superb, but I think it is pretty clear from passages from the same speech, that she was merely alluding to the disparity between the female Latina experience and the white male experience, and how that disparity can affect a judge’s decision. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which a few people do the thinking for the masses. Limbaugh and friends grab a hold of a sentence taken out of context and use it as the capstone of their argument that Sotomayor is a liberal, racist, completely unqualified and biased judge who should not be allowed on the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Thank God I rely on the magic of reading and the powers of Google to give me a more complete understanding of a current issue than Limbaugh can.

*For clarification purposes, I do not believe that Sotomayor is getting a free pass by the media on this one. It may have taken a while for everybody to catch on, but this issue is being discussed at great and often annoying lengths on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and all the blogs. 

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