Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
There he goes again. Sen. John Cornyn has jumped at the first opportunity to oppose the nomination to the Supreme Court of Judge Sonia Sotomayor by saying about her views of race-based remedies to discrimination, “This is a hot-button issue and one that needs to be confronted head on.”
Cornyn’s statement reveals why this issue is important to him. He can make partisan political hay out of Sotomayor’s nomination by making her seem like a racist. This from a leader of the party that gave us the “Southern Strategy.” This from the party of Willie Horton ads. This from the party of Newt Gingrich, who once said that bilingual education was like teaching “the language of living in a ghetto.” This from the party of William Rehnquist, who believed in the doctrine of “separate but equal” and who participated in a Republican project in Phoenix to challenge black and Hispanic voters at the polls.
Current Republican Party chair Michael Steele, in a candid moment, recently said that the Republican party has created the impression about minorities “that we don’t give a damn about them or we just outright don’t like them.” I wonder how that impression was created? Many Republicans are now calling Sotomayor stupid, unqualified, mean, racist, and privileged. Although these descriptions are laughable when applied to Sotomayor, they fit many of the same Republicans and helps answer the question posed.
Most Americans agree with the idea that people should be viewed on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But race and ethnicity are ingrained in our lives – in our politics, history, and economics. They require deliberate and effective policy responses. Few of us have liked all attempts to even the playing field for all our citizens. School busing comes to mind as the leading example. No one likes their elementary-aged school children bussed far away from their homes. This approach was used in the face of widespread housing discrimination that kept minorities away from the good schools and left them with those that were decidedly inferior. But finding a best remedy for this problem is nearly impossible, so we have made do with less-than-satisfactory remedies.
The same is true of employment discrimination. In the late 50s, when minorities were excluded from most refinery jobs in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area (where I grew up), my Sunday School teacher was unashamed to admit to me that he did not want the extra job competition he would face if minorities were hired on an equal basis with whites. He feared he might not have such a good job and his family would suffer. There is no perfect way to correct two centuries of employment discrimination, but we have to try if we want a more just society, one that protects the well-being of all our families, not just white families. Some of our courts have used remedies that tried to compensate for giving whites an unfair advantage for hundreds of years. While such remedies may seem unfair to a particular white person, fashioning a more just remedy has eluded our legal and legislative systems.
Racism in American society was legally mandated for over 200 years before we started getting serious about correcting that injustice. While some of the remedies have been successful–special recruitment efforts among minorities for jobs and government contracting, for instance–the problems are far from resolved. I’m not suggesting that it will take 200 years to resolve them, but forty years working at less than full throttle on the problems has not been long enough.
Recent evidence that we have not reached the high-water mark in ending discrimination can be found in an April 2009 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center – “Under Seige: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South” – which reaches the following conclusions:
“Latinos in the South find themselves caught in a crossfire of hostility, discrimination and exploitation even as new Latino immigrants provide the low-wage labor craved by businesses and homeowners in the region.”
“Many are subjected to routine hardships and cruelties stemming from their lack of legal status. Others who have legal status are victimized by racial profiling, wage theft and other forms of abuse simply because of their ethnicity or vulnerability. And a vast number of immigrant families face great uncertainty and fear because of their mixed status, with both undocumented and documented persons living together.”
As many political writers are pointing out, Sotomayor has more experience than nearly any other current member of the Supreme Court at the time of appointment. She was admitted to Princeton by the sheer force of her hard work and intelligence. So far as we know, she received no affirmative action favors in doing so. She graduated at the top of her class and went on to Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Law Journal. She was appointed to the federal district court by George H. W. Bush and then to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals by Bill Clinton, where she has written hundreds of opinions and heard many more cases.
The racist charge against her is based on a remark she made in a speech she gave in Berkeley, California, as a memorial to Judge Mario G. Olmos, a former judge, community leader, and graduate of the UC-Berkeley law school, who died at a young age: “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.” This is the statement that caused Newt Gingrich to call Sotomayor “a Latina racist.”
Of course, Gingrich ignored her next sentence: “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.” Many comments, taken out of their relevant context result in misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Who can doubt that the experience of being female or Latina gives one a frame of reference different from that of male non-Latinos who have had little experience with the Latino community? Sotomayor’s comments are not racism, but common sense.
The sort of attack engaged in by Gingrich and hinted at by Cornyn may dominate Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. But I have no doubt that she is more than capable of answering such criticism by putting the arrogance and self-righteousness of her critics in the context they deserve.
White male judges, the sort that I have most frequently practiced before for over thirty years, are clearly shaped by their backgrounds and experiences, but few would suggest that they are racist merely because of their limited experiences. No matter how limited are those experiences and how narrow their world-views, they benefit from an unearned presumption of impartiality that is seldom attached to women and minority judges when it comes to race and gender issues. It doesn’t take much observation to know that such an automatic presumption is unwarranted.
Sotomayor noted also that “personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.” She knows this because she has been a trial judge. None of the other justices on the current Supreme Court have had that experience, and it is that experience which led her to conclude her memorial remarks with these thoughts:
“Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion. I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions, and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I re-evaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences, but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”
There is nothing in Sotomayor’s history that leads me to conclude that she is racist. One sentence taken out of context proves nothing once that context is known. But I never expect honesty and fairness from people like Gingrich and Cornyn. They are, at base, privileged politicians who calculate their every utterance and action for the effect it will have on their party, a party that has driven this country to the brink of financial and moral bankruptcy. If Americans demand fairness in her hearing process, there should be little doubt that she will become a more than able replacement for Justice Souter.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print