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.