Sotomayor’s faux racism and power asymmetries

Racism is a seriously malignant and often unacknowledged force in a society.  One might worry that a phrase like “faux racism” (i.e., not real racism) could diminish our sense of how bad racism is.  Still, there are times when we need to get a grip on the fact that a judgement ostensibly based on race is not really a matter of racism.

Racism is also extremely difficult to discuss; the following might seem obvious and even simple minded.  Or it might seem objectionable or in need of qualifications.  Let us know!

During the hearing yesterday, Senator Graham, in his southern accent, asked Sotomayor if she realized how much trouble he would be in if he  said he hoped that a wise white man would reach a better conclusion than a Latina judge.  I think the session closed on his question, and I don’t know what “don’t rock the boat” answer Sotomayor did or would give.  But the remark invites us to look at the difference between verbally analogous remarks.

There seem to me  to be two directions at  least we could take.  One is to bring in standpoint theory directly, as Jender did previously.  Originally, that theory’s proponents argued that oppressed minority positions can make truths perceivable that can’t really be discerned  by others.  We might now see it as saying that people outside a gender, race, class or national group may have insights, particularly about themselves, that the insiders are unlikely to know.  In this latter version, it seems pretty obviously true, and we’ve taken note of that very recently, with the help of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A second, related approach is to look more directly at the power asymmetries between, in this case, Latinas and white men in the relevant society, the United States.  White men, not Latinas, dominate in leadership positions in academia, industry, the law, medicine and the arts.  Universities generally teach the history of white men, their theories, the science they have developed and the arts they produce.

In this context, the statement that a wise white man would do better than a comparably placed Latina (e.g., both are judges or artists or whatever) is to say that there is no need to open up the places of privilege that white men so thoroughly dominate.  That position in effect underwrites severe injustices.

There is no such implication on Sotomayor’s part.   There surely are many arenas in which at least some white men can and do experience failures in justice, but the privileging of learned opinion is in general not one of them.  So what is her comment telling us? 

A Latina judge of Sotomayor’s standing will be very well versed in white culture; after all, she went to Princeton and Yale.  But white men are not well versed in the culture of Latinas.  Consequently, when a decision is made where a Latina’s culture has relevance, she may very well be in a position to make a better decision, particularly if she is wise.  She will be likely to have relevant experience that white men often don’t even know they are missing.   We get this conclusion from the obviously true version of standpoint theory.

You might think there’s still some overstatement – hyperbole – in Sotomayor comments about a wise Latina.  But it is in the cause of getting a place at the table and not a claim that a whole class of people don’t need to be  heard.  The context, with the asymmetries of power, make this clear.

6 thoughts on “Sotomayor’s faux racism and power asymmetries

  1. “But white men are not well versed in the culture of Latinas.”

    First of all, how do you know what these are versed in when you’ve never met them? I call that prejudice.

    Second, who cares about culture? There are many culture represented in this great nation. But it’s not the job of a Supreme Court justice to know them all. Do you know what a justice does? He/she should be well-versed in the LAW. Justices don’t MAKE law, they correctly interpret and apply it.

    I’d love for their to be a “wise Latina” on the court. But one who understands her role within our judicial system. Sotomayor does not.

  2. emmittlangley, let me respectfully suggest that your comments are not well taken.
    1. One does not have to know all or most of the members of a group to know whether they are well versed in a culture. There are many, many other ways. One way is to look at what people who have studied the topic say. Another is to look at factors such as the accessibility of information. Or to look at conflicts of positions reflected in voting patterns, and so on and so forth.
    2. I did not address the question of the representation of a culture on the Supreme Court.
    3. Just about everyone agrees that we want justices to interpret the law correctly. That is not what is in question. What you take as a matter of debate really isn’t.

  3. JJ– What a nice explanation of the assymetries. I’ve only just had a chance to read your post.

  4. Acknowledging the world that shaped your perspective is not antithetical to being part of the judiciary. If anything, it validates the reality that objectivity as an aspiration, is ridiculous. No one can move away from their subjectivity completely. Our standpoints are shaped by our position in society and, if we are mindful, we can use the information from the different standpoints that we take in order to more effectively, and conscientiously create change.

    The fact that she makes such statements only indicates that she has to world travel on a regular basis. Those who do not, tend not to get it. When those who do not get it, hear things that seem challenging to the dominant world view, it becomes troubling. Hence, calling a person who has been marginalized “racist” when she exists in a racist world in which she has had to define herself.

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