This is how I responded to the first person who asked me, via Twitter, to react to Judge Sonia Sotomayor‘s nomination to the Supreme Court. “Barack Obama has great taste in women,” I twittered. Michelle Obama. Hillary Clinton. Susan Rice. The women around him, well, kick-ass. Today, Latinas across America have cause to celebrate. Judge Sotomayor, 54, reflects an accessible, no-nonsense mother wit I hope will come to define bipartisan politics in the years to come. Judge Sotomayor represents the future of America: she’s a first-generation American, born to Puerto Rican parents in the South Bronx. She grew up in the projects and found herself attending a couple of this country’s most lauded universities. She understands how difficult it is to trek through American society as a child of immigrant parents. Sotomayor scares the American Ruling Class, so, predictably they will try and paint her as a radical until the very last stroke. Today, she’s been called a racist and sexist for stating, “…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 so I read the speech—the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture was delivered in 2001 at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law—from which the incendiary quote was extracted from, in its entirety. Surprise, surprise! It was taken out of context (don’t take my word for it, though,: read it and judge for yourselves):
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. 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 Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also 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.
Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.
I think that Judge Sotomayor was merely playing to the crowd she was addressing. Often times, when people of color speak to their experiences in America, they have to tred lightly for fear of being branded a radical or, worse, a racist. Judge Sotomayor was there to empower, educate, and inform Latino students and faculty about her unique experiences growing up Nuyorican in the South Bronx and America. Period.