Sotomayor In Context
In 2001, Sonia Sotomayor said that she “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.” That statement has become one of the centerpieces of the campaign against Sotomayor, with her detractors (Rush Limbaugh being the loudest) accusing her of racism based on this statement. Sotomayor’s defenders claim that Sotomayor was guilty merely of expressing herself poorly.
That explanation really doesn’t work, given that Sotomayor uttered those words in a prepared speech at a UC Berkley event, and the transcript of the speech was published in a law journal. So these weren’t exactly off-the-cuff, impulsive remarks—Sotomayor said exactly what she intended to say. Her words can be taken at face value.
Taking these remarks at face value, many conclude that Sotomayor is a racist, or at least capable of racist remarks. I’m not sure how valid the “racist” accusation is—can you really judge someone’s racial attitudes on the strength of one comment?
According to the American media, you can, and liberals trying to smear conservatives as racist always have one (or two, if they do a lot of research) out-of-context quote that proves beyond all doubt that the conservative in question is a barely closeted racist.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, so we’ll go along with this theory and assume that Sotomayor’s 2001 comments are enough to make a definite judgment about her racial attitudes.
First, the context in which the speech was made is important. Sotomayor made the speech at an event called “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation.” Given her audience, it is possible that Sotomayor just wanted to say something nice about Latinos (and Latinas), and threw in something that possibly wasn’t strictly logical but sounded nice. (In fairness, had a Catholic judge said a similar comment about Catholic judges, something along the lines of “our Catholic faith gives us greater perspective from the bench,” I doubt there would be as great a furor over his or her comments).
In addition, this wasn’t Sotomayor’s best speech ever. In it, her audience learned that the year was 2002 (the speech was given in 2001), that Sotomayor apparently doesn’t realize that “woman” isn’t an adjective, and that women are an ethic minority.
Language issues aside, the point of Sotomayor’s speech was that while absolute impartiality among judges is the ideal, the reality is that all judges will find their personal experiences and beliefs inevitably color their decisions. Among Latinos, this bias should be used constructively to bring a different perspective to the mostly white world of the law.
(This point was a little confusing. Sotomayor said she was working towards “transcend[ing] [her] personal sympathies and prejudices,” but also wondered “whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society.” I think there is a contradiction there, and if Sotomayor reconciled that discrepancy, I missed it).
This led up to Sotomayor’s now infamous comment: “Justice 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.” (I quoted this at length to provide context).
At first glance, these words look pretty damning. After all, Sotomayor appears to be saying that Latina women (isn’t that a redundancy?), by virtue of their race, pretty much come with interesting experiences that “white males” don’t have. And if she had indeed been saying that, her statement would have been racist.
However, a look at her whole speech reveals a little more context. The only Latina Sotomayor talked about at any length was herself, and a great part of those comments involved her Latina heritage and upbringing. The only white males she talked about (at least as white males) were Supreme Court justices, particularly those during the civil rights era.
So, if by the “wise Latina”, Sotomayor meant herself, and by “white males” she meant twentieth century Supreme Court justices, her statement begins to make more sense. If one’s experiences do indeed make one a better judge (as Sotomayor believes), then growing up a racial minority in a ghetto would help one make better decisions than someone who has led a bland, ordinary life. That interpretation—and I believe it is the correct one—makes Sotomayor’s remarks much less offensive.
Maybe Sonia Sotomayor’s speech wasn’t racist, but it certainly wasn’t very good. Her “wise Latina” comment, though benign, was incredibly poorly phrased. And her overall line of reasoning is pretty flawed too—if judges are not to have sympathies and prejudices on the bench, perhaps Sotomayor should have talked about the best way to transcend her prejudices. (She might want to consider looking into the principle of charity). Sonia Sotomayor’s speech wasn’t racist—but it was poorly phrased and confusing, and endorsed a flawed argument.