Much has been said about Supreme Court Justice nominee Sandra Sotomayor’s belief that her experiences as a Latina affords her unique perspectives that allow her to be a better justice than a white male. Despite how much that comment has been taken out of context, conservatives continued to use this statement to call attention to her “identity politics” and to challenge whether her personal beliefs will limit her fairness as a Supreme Court Justice. Sadly, there’s been much less substantive inquiry about her judicial record which by many standards is truly exemplary and even less of a thoughtful discussion of what actually constitutes “that life” she has lead.
Even if Sotomayor succeeds at being nominated, it is doubtful that the White House, or Sotomayor herself, will allow for any further discussion of “that life” when in fact her experiences and her perspective actually need further understanding. Justice is not blind. Laws are not written in a vacuum. The mechanics of our legal systems are still at the mercy of human interpretation. To assemble a court of 12 men and women who must disregard fundamental life experiences in order to interpret the law cannot serve our nation well because we are not a nation of robots. Our Supreme Court must reflect the diverse experiences of American life to which our constitution must be applied.
“That life” Sotomayor has lead is truly such a mystery to most because it is extraordinarily rare to see Latinas in positions of leadership and authority. There are less than one million Latinas in the nation with doctorates, medical degrees, law degrees, or masters in engineering combined—and those who are 50 plus years old are but a small fraction of these. We are often “the only ones” in the room and as such there are often unspoken assumptions made that we got there because we fulfill a quota. Our comments and ideas are thus suspected as having a “self-serving agenda” as if no white male has ever looked for ways to defend their own position. Those of us who are “first generation” in the US, like Sotomayor, often live in a dual world—a life of traditional immigrant beliefs and customs at home while at the same time looking for ways to acculturate as soon as we step outside. Our academic credentials are not necessarily the great equalizer we may be lead to believe. I recall preparing to select my doctoral dissertation committee and discussing this process with my parents who have very limited formal education. With great humility they advised me to pick “buena gente” (nice people) I could work with for the year ahead. My classmates, however, the children of attorneys and professors, garnered far more tactical advice—“find someone who will help you publish your work, another who can find you your first teaching position and one who will guide the statistical analysis”. Hearing about their strategy was a painful reminder that even though I had made it to the game, the playing field wasn’t exactly level. And that reality remains in place during a significant portion of the early stages of a career, if not longer. Upon graduating, there was no one in the family already teaching at an ivy league school to help me figure out that journey and certainly no uncle or cousin to count on for introductions to corporate contacts when I left academia to start a business.
Can white men relate to these experiences of Latinas? Yes, some do. They can be quite sensitive to these life stories especially if they are children of immigrants and if they surpassed their parent’s education or social class. But despite the social progress of our nation, there remains a remarkable divide of basic skin color. White males are not de facto assumed to be immigrants nor do strangers approach them by asking “Do you speak English?” Well meaning professionals think nothing of complimenting us for being “so articulate or well spoken” yet that’s not typically what gets said of white males. This distinction of race and color is truly unique for people of color.
Does all this make her a “better” judge than a white male or a judge of any other ethnic group for that matter? Of course not. At the core of her comments was an understanding that her life’s work has been shaped by her humble beginnings, her triumphs and her challenges. These experiences simply allow her to see and interpret issues through a lens that isn’t easily accessible to others—white male or otherwise. “That life” that Sotomayor has had would indeed be worth exploring as it may shed light on the nation’s largest ethnic minority group—a population that sorely needs to be understood in Washington. Unfortunately, the current politics of damage control and message management—require that she draw little attention to her personal life experiences. Ironically, in a nation that is diverse by design, the confirmation process has forced her to minimize her identity and her heritage. Sotomayor’s legal decision making—like those of all other judges before her—are not independent of their complex human experiences and efforts to suggest otherwise, simply does us all a great disservice.