Her comment was simply a truism: identity shapes experience, which then informs perceptions. Identity provides a lens through which one then observes reality.
By Tim Wise / June 1, 2009
For a group that regularly decries what they view as “minority” whining, and the politics of victimization, white conservatives are demonstrating a penchant for the unhinged histrionics of victimhood, virtually unparalleled in modern times. Facing a nation led by a black man, with a black wife and black children, sullying the hallowed halls of a house they long considered white in more than just name, the far-right finds itself in the midst of a prolonged and currently exploding aneurysm, which would be humorous to observe were it not so toxic in its consequences for the nation.
Going off the Rails on a Crazy Train: Right-Wing Lunacy in the Age of Obama
Now, with the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, these same gasbags see yet further confirmation of the takeover of America by hostile colored forces. It is making them insane, literally, as with Bill O’Reilly, who recently stated with a straight (if somewhat contorted and scowling) face, that Sotomayor’s nomination is just more evidence that the left “sees white men as the problem,” in America.
Reactionary cranks across the radio dial have been trying to outdo one another in the annals of batshit lunacy, and so the rhetoric has been ratcheted up in the past week, from mere statements that Sotomayor is “racist” for suggesting that racial, ethnic and gender identity might affect a judge’s sensibilities (an obvious truth devoid of any racism, and to which we will shortly return), to indicting her as a “bigot,” “anti-white,” and equivalent to David Duke. This latter gem comes from Rush Limbaugh, a man for whom accusing others of racism is more than a little precious. After all, Limbaugh himself once told a black caller to take the bone out of his nose, and has quipped that all mug shots of criminal suspects look like Jesse Jackson.
That Rush would compare Sotomayor to Duke only indicates the extent to which the right either lacks the capacity for research, for discernment, or for honesty. Just to clarify, David Duke has openly praised Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, claimed that Jews are akin to cancer, and has said, among other things that “Europeans and Asians are higher than Africans on the evolutionary scale,” that white folks’ “racial character” is responsible for virtually all civilizational achievement, and that black crime is the result of making the legal system “equalized for unequal people.” He has blamed integration for the spread of venereal disease, and has advocated the sterilization of poor black women. In his autobiography he calls for the rising up of “Aryan warriors” to take back the culture, violently if necessary, from the Jews he believes have hijacked it.
Oh, and it should be noted that for a guy who would now criticize–if only by comparison to Sotomayor — David Duke, Rush might wish to remember his audience: a group that, in a 1991 phone poll, answered overwhelmingly (to the tune of over 80 percent) that if they lived in Louisiana they would gladly vote for Duke, who at that time was running for Governor.
The full compliment of smears against Sotomayor is far too extensive to list, but among the other choice items, we have G. Gordon Liddy expressing concern about the Judge’s menstrual cycle. Liddy is apparently worried that if the Court were conferencing about an important case during said cycle, Sotomayor’s judgment might be impaired. Unlike Liddy’s own judgment, which in 1971 led him to draw up plans (which he then presented to the Attorney General), to kidnap and beat anti-Nixon protesters, and to hire “high-class prostitutes” (his words) to lure Democratic Party leaders onto yachts and film them having sex. Liddy, presumably not suffering from the debilitating effects of menses, also offered to be assassinated if it would help cover up the Nixon gang’s burglary of Democratic headquarters, which he had masterminded.
Then there’s the immigrant-bashing bigot Tom Tancredo, who accused Sotomayor of being the equivalent of a Latino KKK member. That his concern about racism rings a bit hollow, given that the director of his own PAC just pled guilty to karate-chopping a black woman in the head, and given many of the blatantly racist things that have spilled from his mouth in recent years, should be obvious. It is the likes of these who would question the judgment of Sonia Sotomayor, and do so with no sense of shame or irony.
Truth and Consequences: Race, Identity and the Myth of Objectivity
In any event, with all the asininity floating around the AM dial, and however tempting it might be to restrict oneself to the much-deserved ridicule that conservatives have invited on this subject, an even modestly honest examination of her words indicates the unfairness of the attacks upon Sotomayor. Likewise, such an interrogation points out the depths of white racist thinking in this, the so-called “post racial” age of Obama.
First, let’s be clear about what Judge Sotomayor did and didn’t say. She did not say that Latina judges are inherently superior to white male judges. What she said was simply this: that she hopes her experiences, as a woman and Latina, would help her to render better, fairer decisions, specifically on cases about discrimination, than might be the case for white men in the same position. The meaning of this is innocent enough, at least for those whose synapses haven’t been permanently impaired by the likes of Michael Savage, Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter. What Sotomayor is suggesting is that being a Latina, like anything else, informs one’s perceptions and interpretations of facts and the law, because it will have affected one’s experiences in life.
There is nothing even remotely controversial about this statement. Indeed, it is one with which other justices (on the right no less) have agreed, such as Sandra Day O’Connor who said the same thing about being a woman in 1981, Clarence Thomas, who claimed that his experience with poverty would make him more sensitive to the concerns of non-elites (not that it has, but he said it), and Samuel Alito, who suggested his family’s immigrant experience would help inform his opinions of immigration-related issues.
Her comment was simply a truism: identity shapes experience, which then informs perceptions. Identity provides a lens through which one then observes reality. It doesn’t mean that a person is then incapable of rendering fair opinions on legal matters, having viewed a particular case through that prism, but it does mean that objectivity — the notion that a judge is a mere blank slate with no lens whatsoever–is a lie.
And of course it is. To make such a claim is not, as Newt Gingrich would have it, “new racism,” let alone equivalent, as Newt would also have it to “the old racism.” As writer John Ridley has noted, the old racism (which really ain’t that old, as dozens of anti-Obama YouTube clips during the election made painfully clear), often involved enslavement, lynchings, whippings, segregation, and regular terrorism at the hands of white mobs. The old racism was about the deliberate denying of opportunities to people of color. You know, sorta like the kind of racism practiced by the late Justice William Rehnquist (a favorite of Gingrich and his ilk), during his days as a law clerk, during which time he penned a memo defending segregation and advocating that it be maintained, or during his days as a GOP poll watcher, who tried to keep blacks and Latinos from voting in Arizona. Or like the kind of racism advocated by the Princeton alumni group to which Justice Alito once belonged, which seeks to restrict the admission of women and folks of color at the elite university. Yeah, like that.
Even more to the point though — and in what confirms Sotomayor’s presumably racist comment as glaringly and obviously accurate — is that all of that old racism was given the cover of law by white male judges, who because of their personal biases, shaped by their identities as privileged group members who had the luxury of seeing nothing wrong with the social order from which they profited, could shrug in the face of institutional white supremacy. In other words, that white men for over 150 years rendered one after another opinion dispensing with the rights of blacks, Indians, Asians, and all other non-whites, demonstrates the fundamental truth of what Judge Sotomayor is suggesting: identity matters. How else could such esteemed jurists–presumably the best and brightest of their day, in terms of mere academic credentials–render such horrific judgments as were handed down in Dred Scott orPlessy v. Ferguson? Is it not self-evident that had there been persons of color on the Court when those cases were argued, that such justices would have likely felt a wee bit different about the validity of separate but equal? Or the suggestion, rendered in Dred Scott that blacks had no rights which the white man was bound to respect?
The simple truth, which white men often have a hard time grasping, is that we too have a lens. We may not realize it, of course, or we may consider that lens to be merely normal, in the sense that it is a generic, rational, human one, unsullied by our race or gender. But the luxury of believing such a manifestly absurd notion is the hallmark of white privilege and white supremacist thinking. To believe that one’s own reality is the reality for all, and to then universalize that which is actually particular to oneself, is to suggest that you and others like you are the very model of a human being: superior in terms of judgment, clarity, intellect, discernment and objectivity to all others, clouded as they are by their mere social identities. It is a fundamentally racist concept, laden with a color and gender-blind smugness to which persons of color and women of all colors have long been subjected and about which they have long tired.
The law is not, as some appear to believe, a fixed, scientific thing, free from differing interpretations. This, after all, is why so many Supreme Court opinions are split, rather than unanimous, 9-0 renderings. Rational and fair minded people, all of them legal scholars, can and do come to different conclusions about the same set of facts, the same legal precedents, and the same Constitution to which all are sworn. And when considering the reasons why two judges may look at the same facts and see totally different realities, race, gender, class and other identity markers might be found among the answers. Not because there is something inherently different about whites or people of color, men or women, which leads them to different conclusions, but because our social location can mightily influence what we see and what we don’t see.
How anyone could argue with this basic point is beyond the rational mind’s ability to comprehend, especially when it comes to the subject of race. After all, according to surveys in the early 1960s, at a time when this nation was still a formal system of institutionalized apartheid and white domination, two-thirds of whites said that blacks had fully equal opportunities with whites, and nearly 90 percent said, in one poll, that black children were treated equally in schools. In other words, most whites even then, at the height of the civil rights movement, saw no need for that movement. Surely this was not because whites are intrinsically cruel or hard-hearted people, incapable of sympathy in the face of human suffering. Rather, it must be because as whites they simply didn’t need to see the suffering as real. They had the luxury of remaining totally oblivious to the lived experiences of millions of their fellow countrymen and women. That whites could have been so deluded, in retrospect, suggests that indeed one’s racial identity matters and that people of color are likely to bring a deeper understanding to these discussions, including legal deliberations, than most of us would. It is not that whites can’t get it, so to speak. After all, nine white men in Brown ultimately overturned the evil deeds of those other white men in Plessy. But it is to say that the ability to really see institutional injustice is probably a bit keener in those who have long been the targets of it.
This is why we have the example of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley who justified striking down post-emancipation civil rights protections in 1883 by claiming that blacks had unfairly become the “special favorites of the law” by virtue of things like the Freedman’s Bureau, and that they should no longer benefit from this so-called preferential treatment. Rather, Bradley insisted, they should “take the place of mere citizens.” That Bradley could say such a thing, thereby ignoring the institutionalized privileges enjoyed by whites, and the obvious fact that whites were not “mere citizens” but privileged ones (who indeed had been the only legal citizens until about eighteen years before he rendered this judgment) is stunning confirmation of Sotomayor’s comments. Here was an otherwise competent jurist, making a fundamentally ridiculous argument, in all likelihood because as a white man, he had never had to consider his own elevated status as anything but normal and natural.
Sotomayor as a Quota Hire? The Incipient Racism of the Conservative Right
But it isn’t only in the assumption of white objectivity (as compared to the presumed capricious and identity-driven subjectivity of the colored folks) that suggests the ongoing presence of white racism in the Sotomayor debate. Even worse has been the way in which white commentators have jumped on the judge’s nomination as evidence of affirmative action, by which they of course mean the promotion of less qualified, perhaps even unqualified, people of color to positions they don’t deserve, at the expense of more qualified white men.
Although there is no objective way in which one could truly rank the most qualified persons for a Supreme Court appointment — there is, after all, no scale of brilliance that can be applied for this purpose — it is stunning to see how quickly white folks rush to impugn the capabilities of persons of color in high places, irrespective of whether they have any information to justify the attack. While white Republicans have previously praised judicial mediocrity as a positive good when the possessor of such limited skill was a white guy, any hint that a person of color is less than a certifiable Mensa member, sets them off on a rant against the compromising of standards.
So, for instance, we have paleo-bigot Pat Buchanan (who over the past few years appeared twice on a radio show hosted by an overt white supremacist), calling her an affirmative action pick and intellectual “lightweight.” This, coming from a man who once praised the “genius” of Hitler.
Fred Barnes not only claims that Sotomayor has been a recipient of affirmative action–and that she may well never have gotten into Princeton without it — but goes further, implying that her graduating Summa Cum Laude (which most sane people consider a sign of intellectual and academic heft), really means nothing in her case, and might have been the result of lenient grading. Unlike, say, his kindred spirit George W. Bush’s gentleman’s C, about which the former President actually bragged a few years ago, as if it were perfectly respectable.
Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard asks, as if the answer were so obvious as to need no asking at all, “Does anyone dispute that Sotomayor has been the recipient of preferential treatment for most of her life?” This, despite no evidence that she has received anything for which she was not qualified, or that she would have failed to obtain but for her race and ethnicity. To white conservatives, it seems as though any person of color who advances to a high-ranking position must have been the beneficiary of a rigged game. After all, how could they possibly be as good as the white folks they leapfrogged to get there? Indeed, this was the underlying argument of Geraldine Ferraro during the presidential primaries, who insisted that candidate Obama was only the frontrunner because of his race.
That whites are so quick to presume preferential treatment is at work whenever someone who looks different than us makes it to the top is a hallmark of racist thinking. So too, it is based on the absurd notion that when white men do obtain such slots, it must have been merit based, and couldn’t possibly have been the result of a race or gender preference. Even though such preferences for white men were written into the laws of the nation (and the colonies before nationhood) for hundreds of years. Even though still today, according to the available evidence, whites continue to be favored in job searches, irrespective of qualifications. Even though the history of white male success has been almost entirely one of preferences given, favors done, and the receipt of unearned, unjustified advantage. Indeed, even when the white men in question grew up in modest conditions, this remains true, as with the aforementioned Bill O’Reilly, who often ruminates upon his lack of privilege growing up in Levittown, on Long Island, but forgets to mention that the community in which he grew up was racially restricted to whites, at the behest of the developer .
As it turns out, Sonia Sotomayor is likely to be confirmed, white reactionary racism and all around pedantry notwithstanding. Such bigots have, at least, lost that much power, and for that we can be grateful. But let us still be mindful of the strong undercurrent of racism that continues to poison our national politics, and to which millions of Americans still respond, at least if radio listener numbers and ratings are any indication. That the ability of angry white men to derail a Supreme Court nomination has diminished is nice. That we still have to be subjected to their pugnacious bile on a daily basis — and that such biliousness will likely only grow in coming years, as they see their hegemonic grip on the country and the world begin to slip — serves as a reminder that they are still very much out there, and capable of great damage.
May the aneurysm’s rupture continue unmolested. Godspeed to that.
[Tim Wise is a prominent anti-racist writer and activist.]
Source / The Red Room / Racism Review
Thanks to Lisa Sánchez González / The Rag Blog