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The 'Racist' Uproar Over Sotomayor's "Wise Latina" Comment

By May 27, 2009

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Taken out of context, anything can be made to sound dangerous. That's what's happening with Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's infamous "wise Latina" comment that conservatives are calling 'racist.'

The Initial Source of Those Remarks
In 2001, appeals court judge Sotomayer was invited to give the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. From that 3,929-word lecture, 32 words encompassing her "wise Latina" remarks have been ripped from her insightful observation of racism and sexism in the U.S. judicial system.

Divorced from their proper whole, these 32 words are being twisted and held out as a baseless 'warning' against Sotomayor. Conservative pundits are hysterically waving them as a right-winged 'red flag' to anger, inflame, and incite hatred, all because of what Justice Sotomayor will bring to the Court if confirmed -- diversity amongst a largely white male body that does not reflect the face of the United States yet operates from an unassailable position of power.

The Social Justice Context
To understand the full import of Sotomayor's remarks, it's important to also understand the circumstances and expectations surrounding the speech in which she delivered them.

Sotomayer's lecture was given under the auspices of the University of California Berkeley Law School's Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, which sponsors ground-breaking conferences and symposia that bring together experts from around the country to discuss strategies for social change. According to the Berkeley Law website:

The Center hosts two annual lectures honoring distinguished alumni committed to social justice.

The fall symposium is host to the Mario G. Olmos Law and Cultural Diversity Memorial Lecture....established by friends, family and associates in memory of the late Judge Mario G. Olmos '71 to honor his commitment to social justice. The endowed lecture addresses issues of justice for people of diverse national, economic, racial and cultural backgrounds.

Part of a Larger Picture
The following excerpt is drawn from the New York Times' reprint of Sotomayor's lecture (entitled "A Latina Judge's Voice") as published by the Spring 2002 issue of Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, a symposium issue entitled "Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation." Although it only touches on key points, it situates Sotomayer's "wise Latina" remarks (bolded below) in the context of the larger lecture and the broader discussion of race, gender and the judicial system:
I intend... to talk to you about my Latina identity, where it came from, and the influence I perceive it has on my presence on the bench....

Like many other immigrants to this great land, my parents came because of poverty and to attempt to find and secure a better life for themselves.... The Latina side of my identity was forged and closely nurtured by my family through our shared experiences and traditions....

America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension. We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud....

When I finished law school in 1979, there were no women judges on the Supreme Court....There was then only one Afro-American Supreme Court Justice and then and now no Latino or Latina justices on our highest court....

[O]ne of my former colleagues on the Southern District bench, Judge Miriam Cederbaum....rightly points out that the perception of the differences between men and women is what led to many paternalistic laws and to the denial to women of the right to vote because we were described then "as not capable of reasoning or thinking logically" but instead of "acting intuitively."...

Judge Cedarbaum nevertheless believes that judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices and aspire to achieve a greater degree of fairness and integrity based on the reason of law. Although I agree with...Judge Cedarbaum's aspiration, I wonder whether achieving that goal is possible in all or even in most cases.... whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society.... I accept the thesis of... Professor Steven Carter of Yale Law School...that in any group of human beings there is a diversity of opinion because there is both a diversity of experiences and of thought....

[B]ecause I accept the proposition that, as [Yale Law School Professor Judith] Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as... Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that--it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others....

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences...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....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 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.... 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 [v. Board of Education.]

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. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

In the context of the lecture and the points being raised, Sotomayor's 32 words are not the Molotov cocktail of incendiary remarks that a select few would like the general public to believe they are.

Supreme Diversity
Those opposing Sotomayor on principle, not on her solid credentials as a federal judge, cannot afford to alienate either women (a significant voting bloc for Obama) or Latinos (again, another significant voting bloc for Obama). By including a Hispanic justice on the Court and returning another female to the bench, the nation's highest court will better reflect a country in which women are the majority and a growing number of individuals no longer self-identify as one ethnicity but describe themselves as being from blended multi-racial backgrounds.

Framed By Experience
To chastise Sotomayor because she openly acknowledges that her gender and racial background create a framework in which her thinking is rooted -- and to ignore the reality that growing up white and male in the United States is another framework that provides a completely different experience -- is to live in a state of denial. The fact that Sotomayor is frank enough to state that her life circumstances led her to who she is today -- a Latina judge -- is a form of honesty that should be applauded, not censured.

Having gone through the process already for her two federal appointments, her confirmation is expected to go through. And that's why some quarters are screaming about the "wise Latina" comment. It's an example of "the pot calling the kettle black" to deflect us from the real issues at hand -- whether or not she possesses the legal credentials, experience and background to serve the nation's best interests.

From Street Crime Prosecution to Corporate Litigation
Her personal knowledge of a broad segment of the population, gleaned as a child of the projects of the Bronx, an Ivy league undergraduate and law school student, a Manhattan assistant district attorney, a corporate litigator, and a federal judge, gives her a breadth of experience that the other seated Justices cannot come close to claiming.

The Truth About Justice
Of course her decisions will be filtered through the lens of her racial background and her experiences as a woman. Just as the decisions made by Roberts, Scalia & Company have everything to do with their own backgrounds rich with privilege and free of discrimination. Though the robes they don are black, they see the world in color, perceive it through gender, and -- despite what they may say or aspire to -- judge accordingly. Anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Also read:
Ugly Republican Racism and Sexism Over Sotomayor Nomination

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May 27, 2009 at 9:47 pm
(1) Allena says:

Wisest thing I’ve read today: “To chastise Sotomayor because she openly acknowledges that her gender and racial background create a framework in which her thinking is rooted — and to ignore the reality that growing up white and male in the United States is another framework that provides a completely different experience — is to live in a state of denial.”

May 27, 2009 at 10:34 pm
(2) Haley Hamilton says:

I would hope that a wise white man with the richness of his experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a Latino woman who hasn’t lived that life.

….If a white man (or white woman) said same, he would have been eliminated on the spot, especially by the liberal mainstream media…Wake the hell up. Sonia Sotomayor is a racist!

May 28, 2009 at 1:01 am
(3) womensissues says:

Why would a white man ever feel the need to say that? Haven’t you noticed? For the past 219 years on the Supreme Court, it’s been automatically assumed that white men will always “reach a better conclusion” than a woman or a person of color. Why? Because white men have traditionally controlled not only the judicial but the legislative and (until quite recently) executive branches of government, and they continue to dominate industry and the private sector as well. White men don’t need to state the obvious. They rule. And we accept this condition because it’s the way it’s always been.

You and others are upset because Sotomayor speaks a certain brand of truth that we’re not used to hearing. We don’t want it shoved in our faces that although white men rule, others (i.e. women and people of color) believe they can make equally competent decisions but have been denied that opportunity for nearly all of our nation’s history. And so Sotomayor’s labeled a racist. Soon she’ll be labeled other things as well.

Already gender bias is cropping up in the Sotomayor media coverage. On one of the news networks, Tina Brown highlighted the gendered language used to describe Sotomayor; Brown points out that again and again, pundits and commentators say Sotomayor is “no shrinking violet.” Would they use this particular phrase if she were a man? Brown doesn’t think so.

No privileged white man in power will ever say “I would hope that a wise white man would reach a better conclusion” because there’s no need for him to justify his decision-making to anyone. He can be completely wrong-headed, but he’ll rarely have to account for his sins. Look at George Bush — a legacy of wrong decisions and no apologies. Look at Bill Clinton, who didn’t have sex with that woman. Look at all the Wall Street CEOs who made poor decisions and walked away with millions. No woman could get away with that. And certainly no person of color.

White men are the default position, the perceived ‘norm,’ the benchmark against which all others are measured. They don’t have to work extra hard to compensate for race and gender biases, or prove that they have worth in a society that assumes they have little to offer. Their images stare up at us from our paper currency, stare down at us from the halls of academia and government and business, and fill our boardrooms and corner offices. They are the rule. Women and minorities remain the exception.

This is not to say that every white man is evil, or bad, or out to keep women and people of color down. Many white men live under conditions as oppressive as those experienced by individuals who are disadvantaged by race and gender bias. But those white men in power have a vested interest in remaining there, and don’t want to see the status quo threatened. They protect what they have, and Obama and Sotomayor in many ways are re-enacting what happened in the 1960s — the push toward civil rights and racial integration. Obama and Sotomayer literally and figuratively are the first people of color who have ‘move into the neighborhood’ — only this neighborhood is Washington and its hallowed halls of power.

We elected a black man, and we’re nervous because he continues to open the door wider to welcome more non-white, non-male individuals to share in the power and the privilege. Some of us are thinking, “There goes the neighborhood,” and are now fighting tooth and nail to stop it from going in a direction we don’t like and aren’t comfortable with. It’s okay to have a few, but not too many…because if there are too many, they’ll take over… and we don’t want our way of life to change now, do we?

These are the growing pains of a nation moving forward. White men have brought us this far, and now others are stepping up to the plate. It’s about time.

May 28, 2009 at 1:48 am
(4) Ana says:

I haven’t been following this story. Ever since our economy took a dive I’m not watching the news. I’m a 52 years old Hispanic/Latina woman. I came to this country when I was 16 from pre-civil war El Salvador. Thanks for your article! I’ll forward it to my young daughter graduating next week from UC Riverside! Women like Ms. Sotomayor inspire our young men and women to literally be all that they can be. Thanks again!

May 28, 2009 at 1:13 pm
(5) Cryos says:

Another hypocritical article trying to justify racism. Justify it all you want you just show the left is every iota as hypocritical and biased as the far right.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Liberals can’t have it both ways using sound bites to try to drum conservatives out and then try this “taken out of context” for democrats.

If you don’t believe in equality but instead agree with swinging the pendulum and “reverse” discrimination just say so. Banana republics have been doing that for thousands of years even today. I don’t think Zimbabwe’s revenge politics are a good example for america to follow.

May 28, 2009 at 1:15 pm
(6) He'snotmypresident2009 says:

Oh please, this chicks only saying that cause she’s asian, and it wasn’t a slam against an asian! Do you think if “A wise old white man” had said he was smarter than a “latino woman” he wouldn’t be called a racist? I think the guy would be flogged in the street!

Obama has surrounded himself with criminals, and is now hiring racists..notice she doesn’t say that the justice belongs to a group called LARAZA which promotes separation of several lower states from the US to form an addition to Mexico! Or that this groups name literally translate to “the race”, and who promotes illegal immigration and denouncing immigration reform and law enforcement!

May 28, 2009 at 3:09 pm
(7) Caroline says:

I’m stunned by the audacity of folks suggesting Judge Sotomayor is a racist while blatantly engaging in racism themselves.

Are we living in the United States or are we back in Nazi Germany?

There was a time in our nation’s ugly past when each of y’all were put down because of where your ancestors were born.

The NYT did an interesting interview with the guy who is paid handsomely by the Republican party to come up with all this hateful rhetoric. WhiteKnyght, you’ll probably LOL to hear that he can’t buy himself a date.

So, to all you white men spewing your nastiness, just know it doesn’t make you sexy or desirable to the women in your life.

May 28, 2009 at 5:09 pm
(8) whiteknyght says:

notmy… would you be equally an idiot if you were aware the asian chick you were railing about is half white and 100% american… or doesn’t that count in your limited, paranoid worldview.

May 28, 2009 at 5:12 pm
(9) whiteknyght says:

not that being full or half or one-quarter should be a determining factor…

May 28, 2009 at 10:43 pm
(10) whiteknyght says:

and before you go further lecturing about the pedigree of America, check your own lineage… my oldest ancestor fought under Washington at Ticonderoga and Saratoga. when you have been here that long, come on back.

May 28, 2009 at 11:50 pm
(11) whiteknyght says:

and he was German who came to the colonies as an indentured servant.

June 4, 2009 at 2:03 pm
(12) Dennis R says:

Your article misses the point. Her comment is, indeed, both racist and sexist.

She did NOT simply say that her life experiences as a Latina woman would color her decisions. She did NOT simply say that since everyone’s life experience will color their work to one degree or another, diversity might be a good idea. Both of these are legitimate points of view.

What she said, and in the context of her speech clearly meant, is that she, as a wise Latina woman, would make a **BETTER** decision than a white male. **BETTER** is the word that makes her a racist and a sexist.

Don’t simply defend her for saying “different life experience,” and insipidly portray her critics as a bunch of conservative lunatics. Find a way, if you can, to defend the fact she says “better than.”


June 5, 2009 at 2:02 pm
(13) Paul tominac says:

Yes, in context the words are far richer and utterly devoid of controversy, but you don’t even have to wade through the speech to see the lack of scandal, all you have to do is listen, and be able to understand basic english: Sotomayor prefaced the now “controversial” line with “I would hope…” that alone suggests that her topic was far wider than simply a black and white line of race, and it takes her comment from a strident assertion that the conservatives are making it out to be, and knocks it all the way down to an aspiration for progress; progress that is possible through the advantages offered by diversity, one of which being a different perspective.

Clearly, Sotomayor said nothing the least bit controversial, and the real bigots are the ones trying to make something out of nothing. What’s more discouraging is that I know of several folks close by who are buying it, lock stock and barrel, and even when I show them the speech it won’t matter, they want to believe that a black president is looking for angry liberal colored people to tear down decent white folk like them, they want to believe it, they will believe it, and nothing will change their mind.

July 16, 2009 at 11:51 am
(14) nicole says:

I’m a 31 year old latina and i’m very excited someone other than an old white man will be on the supreme court. FINALLY!!

July 18, 2009 at 5:16 pm
(15) ak Woods says:

It is very ironic that that the country that gives white men the seat in the highest court in the land,who claim to be completely unbiased and colorblind, suddenly develop a marked bias and see in technicolor. Truly a wonderful country we refuse to evolve into.

July 18, 2009 at 5:22 pm
(16) whiteknight says:

White men are always right, just ask anybody!!!!!!!!!i Ask all the women who have been raped, all the women of domestic violence, they’ll agree, right? Don’t the white judges just let all the white abusers back on the streets to do it all over again? White men are wise, how could anyone else be?

July 19, 2009 at 10:09 pm
(17) warren grange says:

It is important to take into reference judge cederbaums original statment . Judge cedarbaum stated ” that a wise old woman would come to the same decision as a wise old man” this is a position I support and belive in whole heartedly. I find it troubling that judge sotomayor can not “trancend her personal sympathies” and feels the need to apply her own style of gender and racial filter to the law.

She states that that america is a rich and diverse nation then goes on to say that she finds it troubling we strive to live in a color blind way. Was it not Martin luthar King who taught us to judge not by the color of a persons skin but by the content of character? how can we even consider this woman to be appointed to the supreme court? i accept that every person is prejiduced, and i do not hold it against any one. But JUSTICE IS BLIND and to have a woman who will not even claim to attempt to be impartial is lunacy. I would like to belive that no man or woman is intrisicly “better” at making decisions or “wiser” becase of ther racial background. judge sotomayor obviously dose not. and to have her appointed would be a detriment to equality.

July 27, 2009 at 10:28 pm
(18) NewsView says:

The “contex” of her statement, for me, is the fact that our would-be Supreme Court judge sticks her foot in her mouth. And we don’t usually think of “foolish” and “wise” in the same sentence, let alone with respect to the most demanding job title in the United States. We have to remember: Judge Sotomayor didn’t just write a speech containing a ethnocentric comparison, but published it. More telling, apparently said the same as far back as the 1990s. This appears to be her schtick! She made this issue, and now she’s dealing with the consequences.

Think about it: Law is also a profession that revolves around dealing with consequences — and figuring out the appropriate way to move forward. Does it sound “appropriate” that someone with so much education, intelligence and success would make such damaging statements — not at the hands of her accusers but by her own admission? Can we kid ourselves into believing that she couldn’t have known these words would come back to haunt her? If we ourselves would not say the same in favor of our own ethnic superiority at a dinner party, why can’t we uphold the “dinner party standard” of social and personal conduct for the highest, most coveted role in the land? This isn’t a presidential term. It isn’t a congressional seat. It is one of a precious few jobs with guaranteed security that serve for life precisely because they are said to have more wisdom and experience to serve in such capacity than the rest of us.

The racial aspects are a red herring. Let’s focus on the judgment side of the equation, which is squarely where Sotomayor’s own words tell us to look. A truly wise latina, a wise woman of ANY kind, would not be caught dead making such remarks and then expecting a job promotion on the heels of politically incorrect statements. If saying much the same is going to hurt a school teacher, a pastor, a priest, a corporate career climber, why is a Supreme Court judge, of all things, held to a lesser standard? Did I miss something? Is this not the most RESPECTED role a person can serve for their country? Are we to make a mockery of the seriousness of this appointment by inventing double standards, which all but require that we can’t acknowledge the incongruity and inappropriateness because it might hurt someone’s “feelings”? Enough already! This isn’t social promotion for the kindergarten student who acted out in class but must receive a reward because he “tried” and “couldn’t help it”.

It is time that qualifications and track record of discretion — or in Sotomayor’s case, the complete naivety toward social norms — speak more loudly than all this talk of ethnicity and “context” currently permits. The very focus on everything EXCEPT her ability to behave appropriately on and off the bench is, in itself, racist because we’re effectively saying that she can’t be expected to think or act with any more foresight on account of her “rich heritage”.

I feel Judge Sotomayor should jump over the same bar a dinner party guest would have to clear in order to be invited back to the next one: Don’t go off the deep end, or don’t expect to be back — and rewarded for the foot-in-mouth to boot. Even at that, foot-in-mouth is a stretch because, as I said, the evidence points to this comment having been a long-running theme for Sotomayor. Combined with the courts are where “policy is made” statement, we are forced to accept that these are her GENUINE opinions. All the denying what she said or how she said it doesn’t change the reality of it. She believes and thinks that way, and we are being told to dismiss her failure to grasp its inappropriateness the same way some would encourage us to teach the child who loses a baseball game to receive a trophy anyhow. Don’t we say to ourselves or our children that this is not how the real world works, and we ought to be capable of fitting in? This is not an ethic issue, but one of socialization. There are certain things involved in being a productive worker and citizen in a society. Sotomayor has displayed the ignorance and naivety of a young activist, while wearing the hallowed robes of a judge, and the hubris to repeat it and publish it suggests she will be a loose cannon on the Court at best, and an activist judge who practices “identity politics” at worse.

Sotomayor may have a very cautious and careful record up until this point, but with all restraints and further career aspirations out of her way, whose to say she will not feel emboldened to practice more of the same on the Bench? To constantly switch subjects and make this into a gender or ethnic thing is misleading. Sotomayor said it. Sotomayor owns it. And we’re pretending it isn’t so or as improper as it sounds because somebody might interpret any and all criticism as racist, therefore we aren’t “allowed” to talk about the REAL issues. This is really sad. Even more so, it is frightening because a judge who is foolish enough to talk this way on her own time — year after year — might just eventually rule with less than stelar judgment too. Her career hasn’t ended at the Court; it’s only just begun. There’s plenty of years ahead for Judge Sotomayor to embrace her self-avowed true colors, and don’t think for a moment that she hasn’t already admitted to them already.

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