Sotomayor’s effect on race debate

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(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

With Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s Senate confirmation hearings beginning on July 13, the political peanut gallery will likely once again reach saturation with hackneyed characterizations of both her judicial philosophy and her place in history.

Whether she is regarded warily as an “activist judge” or openly disdained as a “racist”, Judge Sotomayor’s ascension to the national stage has scarcely been recognized for what makes it most remarkable: an undeniable indicator that American government is finally beginning to reflect the nuances and inconsistencies that define our national identity.

At a unique and powerfully symbolic moment in history, the first black president’s appointment of the first Latina to the Supreme Court has catalyzed a debate stratified by such rigid ideological lines that the discussion’s tone all but negates the very improvements in race relations that have made the scenario possible. The right’s knee-jerk, vitriolic dismissal of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as an agent of a ponderous “new racism” disappoints, but the left’s reluctance to confront the complexity of the issue only compounds matters.

However well intentioned, defense of Judge Sotomayor’s now infamous “wise Latina” comments – which will no doubt be rehashed today – has been largely inadequate in defusing the controversy. The offending statement in question has undergone endless spin and analysis in the vain hope of inoculating it, but in continuing to do so Americans are overlooking a pivotal opportunity to elevate the quality of the national conversation on race.

Despite then-candidate Obama’s highly touted “A More Perfect Union” speech in which he urged the country to finally communicate openly and thoughtfully about race, even his comments about the Sotomayor controversy offered a mere perfunctory deconstruction of the tensions at work.

For the sake of argument, let’s take Judge Sotomayor’s words at their most toxic potential meaning. We will assume she meant literally that the life experiences of a Latina better prepare her to interpret and apply the law fairly than the comparatively limited experiences of a white male. To discredit this notion as simply racist, much less to compare the worldview it represents to that of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke like Rush Limbaugh did, is an intellectually lazy conclusion.

Judge Sotomayor’s observation is only bigoted when evaluated through a prism that regards the social location of a member of an in-group and a member of an out-group as interchangeable. Whiteness, as a social construct, is defined by a degree of insulation from the culture and lifestyles of racial minorities. Members of a dominant group within a society see their own values and experiences reflected in popular culture as the norm and consequently can safely contextualize minority groups as being outside of the mainstream and by extension less than imperative to empathize with or understand.

It is no secret to people of color, however, that otherness comes with no such privilege; it is necessary for our survival that we understand not only the culture of our own minority group, but the principles and patterns of behavior of the dominant group that govern the world at large. In this respect, it could be argued that an inferior position in society breeds a duality of consciousness that may add some heft to the judicial perspectives of Judge Sotomayor and others like her. This possibility considered, Judge Sotomayor’s comments are far from outlandish and perhaps not even evidence of prideful bias. Indeed her assertion stands on an all but empirical foundation.

To extrapolate her claim to suggest that all white males are thus inherently unfit to serve the public would be a dangerous mistake, but objective examination of the notion provides a more concrete ethos to the value of both ideological and racial diversity – the supposed dearth of which is commonly cited by conservatives.

The broader context of the issue is that both Obama’s presidency and Judge Sotomayor’s appointment represent qualitative advancements in the decomposition of whiteness as a default. The fierceness of the debate over Judge Sotomayor is but a harbinger of the intensity of divisions to come with the loosening grip of the white male oligarchy.

In February of last year, Michelle Obama remarked that her husband’s pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination had inspired her to feel proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the furor over her observation was an antecedent crack in the myopic American lens, that the fissure she created will allow other comments like Judge Sotomayor’s to come trickling in.

Should Judge Sotomayor be confirmed for the Supreme Court, the plurality of Americans for whom ambivalence toward one’s country is not reprehensible but par for the course will have a powerful representative. The political mainstream is not unlike a highly coveted cocktail party, so this influx of dissent really shouldn’t surprise anyone: the usual flow of party conversation is sure to evolve a bit when the hosts deign to send invitations to guests who were once habitually excluded. The newly introduced company was always a bit different from the party’s typical clientele; they just hadn’t previously been allowed the honor of hovering around the punch bowl.

Like it or not, it’s too late to rescind the invitations. People like Sotomayor are bringing names that confound computer spell checks, complex attitudes toward patriotism and yes – even a bit of arrogance about their long-ignored perspectives – with them.