Racism, Sexism and The Significance of Sotomayor

AsSCOTUS 2 expected, Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has drawn controversy, media attention, analysis and even some humorous send-ups of right-wing critics (Creative Commons License photo credit: Padraic).

Opponents have alternately claimed that Sotomayor is (a) not smart enough for the Court (despite degrees from Ivy League Universities and an apparent history of exemplary academic performance), (b) racist, and (c) perhaps most bizarrely, saddled with an unpronounceable name

While these conversations themselves warrant another post (and analysis of their racist and sexist assumptions, particularly the one that she’s not smart enough), what strikes me the most about Sotomayor’s nomination is what it suggests for the future of race relations in this country. Not in terms of the “role model” argument (the idea that young people need to see someone like them in positions of power to help them see that their options are plentiful and far-ranging), though I think there is some merit to that claim.

Sotomayor’s presence on the Court, in my opinion, reveals much about the way Obama intends to address racial inequalities in his role as president.

Of late, Obama has not said much about racial matters, particularly issues of racial inequality. Many of his statements about race that I’ve read date back to 2006 or 2007, well before he was a serious candidate for President. In several these statements, he acknowledges the existence and consequences of systemic racism:

“I don’t believe it is possible to transcend race in this country. . . Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history.” (Essence magazine, October 2007)

However, on the campaign trail and while President, Obama mostly remained quiet about the ongoing existence of systemic racism and his plan to put policies into place that remedy it. In fact, he has gone on record talking about the need for class-based policies, using the metaphor that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Of course, President Obama walks a very difficult line, one none of his predecessors have had to balance. If he appears racially conscious, he runs a high risk of upsetting supporters who like to see him as color blind, offering easy ammunition to opponents looking for anything to use as a source of criticism, and maybe most significantly, seeing his support and ability to get things done erode in a wave of racially-tinged suspicion. If we assume that eradicating racial inequality matters to him, how then does Obama put policies into place without sacrificing political capital and losing control of his momentum?

Enter Judge Sotomayor, the first potential Supreme Court justice who will have personally experienced the multiple, overlapping oppressions of racism, sexism, and poverty. Who has observed that dealing with these intersecting factors would likely render her more capable of reaching a wise, sound decision on cases of discrimination than her white male peers who benefit from their race, gender, and class privilege. Who at the same time acknowledged that these intersecting factors do not preclude elite white men from reaching sound, fair decisions on cases of discrimination (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), but sees the reality that living her life as a woman of color gives her a particular insight into oppression that might escape her white male colleagues.

What makes Sotomayor’s nomination especially relevant right now is that Chief Justice Roberts has issued some of his most telling decisions and statements on cases related to racial discrimination and civil rights .  Despite his clear intelligence and stellar academic credentials, Roberts is woefully uneducated when it comes to the realities of racial oppression in this nation. Operating from the color blind racist perspective, Roberts is apparently of the opinion that any focus on race—even with the intent of diversifying, correcting ongoing racial inequalities, or addressing systemic racial imbalances—is in and of itself racist. This willful refusal to recognize that racism is built into the very core of the political, economic, and social foundations of this nation, has always worked to disadvantage people of color, and will continue to do so if left unchecked, is an egregious blind spot on the part of our Chief Justice. So too is his inability to distinguish between taking race into consideration when trying to make a school system diverse (in compliance with Brown v. Board) and focusing on race in efforts to create and maintain segregated, unequal social systems.

Right now Sonia Sotomayor is being savaged by people who refuse to respect her intelligence and hard work, and instead seem to think that her status as a Latina signifies a person who is dumb and unqualified. It’s particularly ironic that she may sit on a Court that decides whether affirmative action policies are legal or even remain necessary. It seems to me that Sotomayor’s experience having her qualifications disregarded in a way that evokes common racial/gendered stereotypes would give her a perspective on the necessity of affirmative action that might elude Judges Roberts, Alito, and Scalia.

People often mistakenly assume affirmative action just elevates unqualified minority candidates, but when used wisely and correctly its purpose is to create opportunities for racial minorities who work hard, are eminently qualified, but still face discrimination because of potential employers’ biases (like the automatic, reflexive assumption that people of color are less intelligent). It seems to me that what Sotomayor is facing right now is a prime example of said biases, and this speaks directly to her statements for the value of a diverse bench. These are the types of experiences that can help Sotomayor see aspects of the law that Chief Justice Roberts, with his color blind worldview, will likely miss.

Obama is a smart enough politician to know that a candid focus on policies openly designed to eradicate racism will impair his ability to fulfill his other priorities and will pretty much guarantee him a one-term presidency. But he can select a Supreme Court nominee with stellar credentials, extensive legal experience, and the personal history to allow her to see what her colleagues are comfortable ignoring. She can’t make policy from the bench, but she can make sure the law works for everyone. In doing so, she can be Obama’s voice for racial and gender equality.


  1. Thanks for this post. I am glad someone is highlighting this.

    The same kind of accusations went forth about the Obamas during the election period. The same kind of accusations are thrown up at tenure time for academics of color or at promotion time for lawyers, executives, and othe professionals of color.

    Beyond this, I find it ironic that people rarely question the competence of racially-privileged professionals. They assume that these individuals got to their places of privilege based on merit.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. I’m with Abigail. It’s a bit disquieting that Pat Buchanan has no problem with the supposed intelligence of the 6 white men who’ll remain on the court, but degrades Sotomayor as an “affirmative action” pick. And ironically enough, she is the definition of an affirmative action “pick.” She’s immensely qualified and we’re just now making sure she would receive a fair shake. At any rate, heretofore, the Republican response to the nomination has been so lame! At times, I almost feel bad for the, usually white men, though I did see a white woman arguing against Sotomayor just Wed, who have to make such intellectually lazy arguments. And these are Republican establishment people, too! The last time they wanted to argue something this ridiculous, the sent out Patrick McHenry to demand Dems tell what they knew and when about the child molester Congressman.
    Related to another discussion with Seattle and Jeff, this whole “affirmative action” thing is the sort of racist meme people who disapprove of the term “people of color” follow. In their world, everything is equal and “affirmative action” elevates an unqualified person of color or woman (or both). Even though that’s never been the case. But, it follows that if everything is equal, there’s no need for terms like “people of color.” The problem, of course, is that nothing has been equal and to ignore inequality nurtures inequality.
    Just three more thoughts. 1) Isn’t there a term that’s the opposite of “affirmative action” that refers to folks of privilege? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it, I just can’t recall what it was.
    2) For some reason, it’s hard for me to get pass the fact that Sotomayor is really a white hispanic. She faces racism, yes. But she has a leg up on black hispanics.
    3) I don’t think Roberts is seeking a colorblind society. Neither he, Scalia, Alito, or Thomas, I believe, seek a colorblind society. They have access to all the evidence pointing towards the continuing need for govt intervention to combat racism, but go through these intellectual hurdles to maintain the status quo. Ie, the case involving Sect 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Not to mention they’d be “activist judges” to overturn a law Congress just requthorized 3 years ago. Such blatant hypocrits. But to my point, I’m not sure they’re interested in reaching a colorblind society. I think they’re just, at best unintentially complicit in racism and at worst, just flat out racist. I tend towards the latter.

  3. So you think using the term “affirmative action pick/hire/promotion” to degrade someone is fair? My point is that it’s racist because it’s something that rarely happens. So to act like a rare occurence is the general rule of things, when it’s not, just to further white supremacy is racist.
    Just like “actual” discrimination against racial minorities. It’s illegal, but it happens. And it happens tons more than “reverse” discrimination. So the whole “affirmative action hire/pick/promotion” argument is basically empty and racist rhetoric. But thanks for showing us the things people will do to apologize for racism, like make some inane comment, even if intended sarcastically, and leaving a smiley face. 🙂
    Really, siss. What’s your pay-off for being a racism apologist?

  4. siss

    I don’t think its degrading. Actually, I agree with your statement, “…Ironically enough, she is the definition of an affirmative action “pick.” She’s immensely qualified and we’re just now making sure she would receive a fair shake.” I think she will make a fine choice in a committee that needs some sprucing up.

    What do you mean by racism apologist? I guess I’m not familiar with the term. If it means what it sounds like, why would you classify me as such?

    My comment was directed at your statement: “So this boogey man never exists, and/or is illegal when it does.” It’s a pity that you’re unable to deal with some sarcasm, or a difference of opinion for that matter!

  5. Have you heard how the term is normally used “affirmative action hire/pick/promotion?” And you don’t think it’s degrading? And I find your comments are often condesending, even if there’s not much merit to them. I’m sorry, but recently, my patience for condesension and defense of the status quo is not what it used to be.

  6. adia

    K State, I agree with your point that Chief Justice Roberts is not seeking a colorblind society. This is why I said he uses a colorblind racist perspective, which Eduardo Bonilla-Silva details masterfully in several of his books. This perspective allows individuals (mostly whites, but also some people of color) to hide behind or employ colorblind language and terms as a means of obscuring very racist actions and behavior. From the analyses I’ve seen of his legal reasoning, I think Roberts does exactly this–uses colorblind language to justify perpetuating legal standards and processes that disadvantage people of color.

    Also, I do not necessarily disagree with Siss’ point at #6–there may in fact be some less qualified people of color who are promoted/hired under misguided efforts to engage in aff action. Ironically, I think Justice Clarence Thomas is a prime example of this. From what I understand, he was a mediocre legal mind with minimal judicial experience when he was nominated for the court, and the reason he was picked was primarily because he was black, conservative, and wouldn’t make waves. (Interestingly, he accepted this promotion and thus has benefitted from affirmative action in its worst form, but consistently votes against affirmative action policies that could be used in more beneficial ways for other, more qualified, folks of color. Analyze that however you want.) Anyway, I think Siss is right that there may be some cases where people are promoted who shouldn’t be. BUT (and this, I think, is your point and what often gets left out of these debates on aff am), there’s an abundance of sociological research that shows this is way less common than the reverse—abundantly qualified people of color *immediately* being labeled inferior because white employers decided that blackness/Latino-ness = inferior. I do not intend to speak for Siss, but perhaps this is what was meant with the statement (see #7) that it’s not degrading to be an “affirmative action hire” if you fall into the latter group–someone who’s hyperqualified and, because bosses were complying with aff action policies, they had to put aside their own racism to take note of it.

  7. Thanks, Adia. You explain my point exactly, and even help an effort at cordial discussion with siss. For the record, I don’t think being an “aff act” hire is degrading. I think the use of the term is degrading, ie, “She’s just an aff act hire.”

  8. Simpson Bailey

    I‘m a Black man. I had a race discrimination case where I was repeatedly passed over in promotions that went to LESS QUALIFIED WHITES. My evidence included a white official’s statement that he didn’t want any “NIGGERS” in his office. The case went before a three-judge panel (2nd circuit Court of Appeals) including Sotomayor and two white male judges. They simply ignored the facts and law!!! ALL three voted to ignore clear-cut white racism! Sotomayor claims to be “[a wise Latina woman” who would “[reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” WHAT A FILTHY CROCK!!! Sotomayor may as well be a Ku Klux Klan leader. Maybe she thought sucking up to white male colleagues was more important than fair justice. I have no respect for her. She showed she’s no different than Clarence Thomas. Her qualifications have no value because she’s just another crook! (See Bailey v City of New York)

  9. gene

    how do white males elevate there careers in a minority run nation?the door slamming has become sunonimus with white bashing.and no matter how bloggers want to white wash excuse the pun,fact is white males do not have the full protection under the 45 yearold laws that minority run offices have!by the way,minorities have a better chance at a discriminationsuit then 95%of any white male would have in this minority run buisiness!

  10. adia

    Gene, I would like to see evidence for your claim that the US is a minority run nation. On what do you base this argument? It’s clearly not grounded in the fact that people of color are overrepresented in the most powerful sectors of our society–e.g., Congress (where there’s 1 Senator of color and, I think only about 30 House members), in the business elite (where people of color are generally missing), or among the ranks of that 1% that own the majority of the wealth in this country (racial wealth disparities prevent this). So what are the grounds for your contention that this is a minority-run nation? And please don’t say President Obama is your evidence–that would be a ridiculous claim given that our system of government includes three separate branches, is democratic rather than totalitarian, and thus the race of the president doesn’t automatically indicate that members of that racial group are now running the country.


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