With the Senate’s confirmation and swearing in now out of the way, Sonia Sotomayor is now a Supreme Court Justice. Liberal whites, as well as many Latinos, are jubilant at what they view as a great step forward for Latinos.
After a time of reflection, however, the realities of racism bring a sobering realization: her ascent to the Supreme Court is both a personal triumph over anti-Latino racism and thus a reminder of the deeply embedded racist apparatus of this country.
Sotomayor is a brilliant woman whose achievements were won through great discipline and admirable effort. Yet she is heralded as the “first Latino” to become a member of the Supreme Court by almost all commentators, left, right, and center. Clearly, her master status is “Latino.” Her great achievements and qualifications lie somewhere in the background.
The appointment of a white Protestant man to the Supreme Court attracts only a modicum of attention, and virtually never to his whiteness or maleness. That is seen as normal. Once again, the deep, unconscious white racial frame shapes common sense and blinds us to the fact that white privilege is the cause of both the ordinariness of white accomplishments and the momentousness of Latino achievement.
A danger that lies ahead is that Sotomayor’s appointment may be interpreted by many conservative and “mainstream” observers as further evidence that “race” is a thing of the past. However, even as Sotomayor succeeds as a justice, unauthorized immigrants are still widely exploited and persecuted, the Spanish language is routinely assailed and vilified, and Sotomayor’s homeland, Puerto Rico, remains a nation under U.S. control.
Sotomayor has been accused by her conservative opponents for her putative “activism” as a judge. As far as I’m concerned, it was not her so-called activism but her encounters with racism that helped her see past the white racial frame and make such great achievements.