Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sotomayor and those racist comments

Well, I have done what apparently few others have done and actually read her speech . I encourage you to follow the link and do so as well.

The remarks that have caused such a tempest in a teapot have been taken out of context and used to imply that Judge Sotomayor is racist.  Her speech was entirely focused on race and gender and its affects.  She speaks at great lengths about her personal history and how it influences her.  We'd all be fools to deny this obvious fact- our personal experiences do influence how we see things.  She also goes on to say that though her experiences and cultural background can be influential that she believes that:

 "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 reevaluate 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."

She talks of the landmark case Brown v Board of Education and how 9 white male Justices were able to see beyond their background and personal experiences and understand "the values and needs of people from a different group". The ability to see beyond your personal experiences takes time and effort and not all are willing or able to do so and this, she says, is why having women and people of color on the bench at all levels is important.  They're ability to recognize and relate to others' experiences are vital to a healthy, robust judicial system.

As to the right wing talking point that if you took the quote "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" and changed the speaker and word order to read "I would hope that a wise white male with the richness of his experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a Latina who hasn't lived that life" that the presumed white male speaker would be accused of racism and sexism, they're right.

That does not however, make Sotomayor's comment racist.

I know that doesn't seem logical.  That if one is bigoted that the other is as well. And I don't subscribe to the belief that people of color are incapable of racism.  I do, however, see Sotomayor's greater point and believe that she's right.  Our personal history, experiences and culture do contribute greatly to how we see things.  It's a basic part of what makes us human.  We filter the world through what we have learned, through what we have experienced and through what we believe.  And that last bit is why I do not believe that Sotomayor's remarks are racist.  She doesn't believe that her experiences make her inherently better just different and that as far as those experiences provide her with a point of reference in dealing with cases of discrimination, her decisions would be more informed.

Indeed, Justice Alito said much the same thing in his confirmation hearing.  He said his background and that of his parents as immigrants would influence his rulings on immigration; that he would be forced to see those topics through the filter of his parents' experiences. He said, "when I look at those cases, I have to say to myself, and I do say to myself, "You know, this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country."

Yet he was not only confirmed but those comments made no splash at all.  Here is a judge, one could say, telegraphing the fact that he will be incapable of being impartial.  Of course, one could also say that his personal history gives him a different perspective.

We don't want our judges to be robots just as we don't want them to be biased. We ask a great deal of the men and women on the bench. They must know the law and apply it fairly. That this has not been done at times because of the personal filter of racism or sexism or whatever ism you want to use, is an unfortunate reality.  I for one would hope that judges, whether appointed or elected, acknowledge that they may have biases and equally acknowledge that they must rise above them.  Sonia Sotomayor is one of those judges.  She acknowledges that she, like all of us, has personal biases and that she must make every effort to be fair.

It's time to focus on her rulings to see if she has lived up the ideal she espouses. And long past time to stop accusing her of racism.

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