Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor: How did she get in here? Or...The more things change; the more they stay the same

The election of President Barack Obama heralded in a post-racial world, or so I'm told. Why then, does criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor sound so much like the typical volleys thrown at high-achieving people of color?

She is not smart (unqualified) and merely an affirmative action hire.

John Yoo...JOHN YOO, the man who thinks the United States should torture, had the unmitigated gall to be among the first to weigh in with this charge:

President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor shows that empathy has won out over excellence in the White House...
Obama had some truly outstanding legal intellectuals and judges to choose from—Cass Sunstein, Elena Kagan, and Diane Wood come immediately to mind. The White House chose a judge distinguished from the other members of that list only by her race...

There it is then. When will a person of color ever gain a position without being dogged by charges of not being good enough?

Sonia Sotomayor has served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit since October 1998. She has been hailed as "one of the ablest federal judges currently sitting" for her thoughtful opinions, and as "a role model of aspiration, discipline, commitment, intellectual prowess and integrity" for her ascent to the federal bench from an upbringing in a South Bronx housing project.
Her American story and three decade career in nearly every aspect of the law provide Judge Sotomayor with unique qualifications to be the next Supreme Court Justice. She is a distinguished graduate of two of America's leading universities. She has been a big-city prosecutor and a corporate litigator. Before she was promoted to the Second Circuit by President Clinton, she was appointed to the District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H.W. Bush. She replaces Justice Souter as the only Justice with experience as a trial judge.
Judge Sotomayor served 11 years on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, one of the most demanding circuits in the country, and has handed down decisions on a range of complex legal and constitutional issues. If confirmed, Sotomayor would bring more federal judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice in 100 years, and more overall judicial experience than anyone confirmed for the Court in the past 70 years. Judge Richard C. Wesley, a George W. Bush appointee to the Second Circuit, said "Sonia is an outstanding colleague with a keen legal mind. She brings a wealth of knowledge and hard work to all her endeavors on our court. It is both a pleasure and an honor to serve with her."
In addition to her distinguished judicial service, Judge Sotomayor is a Lecturer at Columbia University Law School and was also an adjunct professor at New York University Law School until 2007. Read more...

None of the above matters though. Nor does the fact that Sotomayor battled from a poor childhood in the Bronx to the halls of Princeton and Yale. (I maintain that dumb bunnies don't make it out of urban blight to the Ivy League and the judiciary, particularly when they are Latina.) Yoo and critics on rightwing Web sites like Red State could oppose Sotomayor's rulings, many of which they might logically disagree with. Instead, they brand her stupid:

So since nothing else about the office of the President of the United States is sacred, why would he not use his constitutionally mandated power to nominate to the Supreme Court of the United States a person so desperately lacking in judicial timbre that people of reason stand amazed, mouths open in awe. says some poster on Red State. John Turley, constitutional law professor at George Washington University Law School, tells Fox News:

"I don't believe the body of her work justifies this nomination," Turley said. "I've read about 30 of her most important decisions and they do not suggest someone with a profound understanding of the law. But that does not mean that she will not surprise us." Read more...

She is dumb, you understand. Dumb as a stump! Women like her don't belong on the Supreme Court. She is being handed what good men like Antonin Scalia and John Roberts had to work for.

She is angry.

Racewire took The New Republic to the woodshed over implications about Sotomayor's "temperament."

The most consistent concern was that Sotomayor, although an able lawyer, was "not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench," as one former Second Circuit clerk for another judge put it. "She has an inflated opinion of herself, and is domineering during oral arguments, but her questions aren't penetrating and don't get to the heart of the issue." (During one argument, an elderly judicial colleague is said to have leaned over and said, "Will you please stop talking and let them talk?") Read more...

Churlishness is okay if you are, say, Dick Cheney or John Bolton. Not so much for the Latina lady judges.

It occurs to me that these alleged temperament problems may be merely products of race-biased perceptions of Sotomayor. I mean, isn't Michelle Obama supposed to be an angry radical, too, despite ample evidence to the contrary? Latina = fiery. Black woman = angry. Any questions?

She is a racist or a (God, help me.) "reverse-racist."

The right is bringing the faux outrage about Sotomayor's belief that our life experiences, including ones driven by our race and culture, influence our judgments and interpretations. The notion seems so benign and reasonable. But there is something frightening to the mainstream about a WOC who unapologetically claims to do what white men do all the time, and something outrageous about one who claims that her Hispanic heritage and female identity might make her better equipped to ajudicate some cases, particularly those related to racial and sexual discrimination.

Playing on suspicions that colored folk, when given power, will secretly work to tilt things in their favor (Projection?), conservative talking heads like Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich and de-facto GOP chairman Rush Limbaugh are angrily decrying Sotomayor's "racist" views and hinting that in choosing the jurist, President Obama has revealed a racial bias of his own. And mainstream media, including Politico and the Washington Post, are abetting their claims. At issue is a 2001 speech that Sotomayor gave at the University of California--Berkeley that was later published in the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal:

In our private conversations, Judge [Miriam] Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women. I recall that Justice Thurgood Marshall, Judge Connie Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench, and others of the NAACP argued Brown v. Board of Education. Similarly, Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg, with other women attorneys, was instrumental in advocating and convincing the Court that equality of work required equality in terms and conditions of employment.

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. Justice [Sandra Day] O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, 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.

Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice [Benjamin] Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. Read more...

This is the radical raving that so enrages the right?

At the heart of all this fretting is the notion of whiteness as neutral, as my blogsister Latoya Peterson pointed out on Racialicious. Buchanan, Gingrich and Limbaugh presumably were okay with Ronald Reagan being informed by his Illinois roots, Bush I being a product of his New England WASPiness, and Bush II acting like a big-hatted Texas cowboy. All of these men were as much defined by race as Sonia Sotomayor, though that remains unspoken. During the 2008 presidential election, conservative icon Sarah Palin preached "real" American and values all over the Midwest and South, promising that she and her running mate shared these founding principles and would govern by them. When she talked about Barack Obama being "different from us," she was heralding a certain type of Americanness that is, in part, defined by race. I have many a relative in Sarah Palin's "real" America. I have lived in the Midwest all of my life. Yet, I doubt Palin was thinking about me when she invoked the beliefs and values of the Heartland. My beliefs and values, Sotomayor's beliefs and values--they are "other" and have no place in government. The values of Reagan and the Bushes and the Palinites are simply neutral.

She doesn't belong here.

That is the real argument I am hearing against Sonia Sotomayor. She is a fairly moderate judge who, when nominated for appellate court in 1998 was supported by several Republican senators, including Bob Bennet (R-UT), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Dick Lugar (R-IN), and Thad Cochran (R-MS). It is hard to paint her as a hard lefty (though the other side will try). It is easier to play on biases against the intellect, temperament and values of people of color. It is easier to blast the pronunciation of her surname. It is easier to play on the notion that a woman like Sotomayor couldn't possibly make it to the Supreme Court fair and square like her white, male counterparts.

As I wrote this post, I recalled an incident from my college years--late 80s/early 90s. To advance in the journalism track, students had to pass an advanced English/writing test in their sophomore year. It was considered a tough exam and a significant number of students would take it more than once before passing. Now, I don't mind saying that I'm a smarty pants. I passed the hell out of that test on the first try, cause that's how I roll, yo. :) One of my white, male acquaintances--roommate to my friend's boyfriend Joe--failed, however. When told that I had passed the required test, Joe was dumbstruck: "How could you have passed on the first try?" (Emphasis all his.) "That test is really hard and X is really smart and he failed it!"

It mattered not to Joe that I came to college an A student and was studying on a full academic scholarship or that I graduated third in my high school class. I did not belong among the star students, not like his roommate with the right pedigree (read: race and gender).

That incident happened nearly 20 years ago, but I remember it well. They tell me things are different now. In the age of Obama, race doesn't matter. It seems, though, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.


ThirstyDancer said...

Preach it! Nothing else to add. You've covered the issue. Even this morning's NYT headline makes reference to her "temperament." Creepy language.

S said...

I about lost my mind when I read about Fred Barnes suggesting that just any old dummy can graduate summa cum laude from Princeton. She just couldn't possibly have gotten that honor by being smarter and a better student than the vast majority of her class! Will anyone but white males ever be acknowledged to have achieved something by earning it?

My state supreme court has a justice who can tend to dominate the argument. No one attributes that to his race or gender. It's just his personality. But that's because he's a white male.

I so agree with the conclusion that so many people perceive neutrality and whiteness as being the same thing. Ugh.

This was such a great post!

MrsGrapevine said...

Because they are the typical volleys...

This is the first time I heard them call a minority a racist, by manipulating a quote way out of context. You would think she dropped the n-word or something. In the last 48 hours she has been called every vile word they could think of. I say keep exposing them Obama, and watch your slip, because they are waiting.

Professor Kim said...

Thank you for this. It's a word fitly spoken!

Julia said...

"But there is something frightening to the mainstream about a WOC who unapologetically claims to do what white men do all the time, and something outrageous about one who claims that her Hispanic heritage and female identity might make her better equipped to ajudicate some cases, particularly those related to racial and sexual discrimination."

Yes to this point, and a hearty thank you for pointing out the absurd "logic" of this discourse. "Reverse racism" my behind (if only it were so easily reversed). Even NPR is engaging in some of this nonsense. A whole segment this morning on nunchucks, of all things, an issue that's clearly crucial to the future of our country. Oh, yeah, and I love how it's "identity politics" to pursue a supreme court that reflects the demographics of our nation. Ugh.

So glad that others are seeing what I am seeing and hearing what I am hearing and are equally outraged and disgusted. Thanks, as always, Tami.

PureGracefulTree said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I avoided reading anything on the Sotomayor nomination for quite a while because so much of it was pissing me off. I should have known that all I needed to do was find my sister Tami and she'd tell it like I see it.


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