John McWhorter

Sonia And The Man: Why Her Wise Latina Defense Doesn't Make Sense And Why It Doesn't Matter

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Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” line is worth some comment beyond that which I ventured a while ago. Her record makes it clear overall that she will be a more than suitable justice on the Supreme Court. However, her defense of that comment this week has been logically hopeless. We all know it.

We should also know, at this point in time when people of color of her generation are of the age to rise into top positions requiring serious vetting, why Sotomayor and others like her will have to, shall we say, dissimulate in cases like this. A true understanding of our social history will require us to give people like this a pass on statements like the “wise Latina” bit.

When Sotomayor claims that her statement was merely ill-couched and that we should read it as indicating that “I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging,” it is nonsensical. Her statement, in its fullest rendition at U.C. Berkeley, quite clearly was:

“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.”

A “better conclusion,” and she said it more than once.

This is a statement that a certain racial group does have an “advantage.” “I stand by the words. It fell flat,” Sotomayor says --which is closer to the truth. She believed what she said, but what she said didn’t go over well with others listening in. But -- not because she didn’t use the proper wording, but because of what the words clearly meant.

Her most articulate clarification spins the statement into one about how empathy will simply inform – rather than render better than “white” – her judgments:

I think life experiences generally, whether it’s that I’m a Latina or was a state prosecutor or have been a commercial litigator or been a trial judge and an appellate judge, that the mixture of all of those things, the amalgam of them help me to listen and understand.

It’s unclear to me that anyone, however they feel about the issue of whether empathy should affect jurisprudence, could fail to understand the basic logic of this statement. Again, however, that “better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life” implies that the empathy in question makes a Latino/a a better judge than a white one, according to what she said.

The question is why Sotomayor said this, and whether she actually believes it. My sense is that it is a sentimental notion that occupies an area of her brain outside of that concerned with ratiocination. In a very ordinary way. When’s the last time we saw a public figure of obvious intellect, familiar with long-lined argumentation, comfortable with separating gut feeling from logic, turning out to be dipping their toes behind the scenes in visceral tribalist contrarianism?

Yes, last year when our notoriously cool, cerebral President was being raked over the coals for attending a church presided over by a rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist preachah-man. Many of us wondered why he would be in that church, and why its seemingly well-heeled members get such a kick out of listening to Jeremiah Wright sounding off like Louis Farrakhan. And Peggy Noonan, of all people, nailed it--even those who have gotten past what their ancestors suffered often feel a need to give off now and then a “barbaric yawp” of empathy with their ancestors, as well as with their comrades still lagging behind. It’s a way of indicating a sense of history. Empathy, if you will.

It’s something often done at high volume. It’s about the gut. Or, it’s a way you help reach out to audience members of your ethnicity on the level of the heart. And inevitably, it lends itself to chauvinist rhetoric. To elevate difference, “diversity,” as special as we did in the sixties almost inevitably shades into claims of superiority, especially when the motivation is assuaging the very real abuses of the past (and even present). There was a fine line between, for example, Black is Beautiful and "black is better" -- along the lines of the more athletic claims of the White Negro sentiment from Mr. Mailer, which had (and has) its reflections in both white and black thought.

Is any of this surprising, however? Certainly part of a group’s getting over centuries of dismissal will entail a certain amount of jolly chest-beating and handshakes. This is what human beings do. We have ids as well as egos. We speak casually as well as formally. We have right brains as well as left brains. This off-the-record brand of chauvinism has been a therapeutic element in the air in ivory tower circles and beyond for forty years now. I was in it for a good while myself and remember it well. You drink in an unspoken but powerful sentiment that minority essence – “flava” as one might put it -- is warmer, more authentic, more empathetic indeed, than yesterday’s tired, oppressive “whiteness.” (White people groaning “That’s so white” would have seemed like science fiction in, say, 1958.)

Recall, for instance, Michelle Obama learning that she could not be so cozy in media interviews as to pop off the likes of being proud of her country “for the first time” in seeing her husband’s embrace by the electorate. It seemed smug and offensive to many: on the one hand, you assail the United States as defined by its failure to account in a final way for the stain of slavery and Jim Crow, while on the other hand you work diligently at rising into top positions within the framework of that very nation despite your own dark skin and associating easily with whites. Mrs. Obama’s statement didn’t surprise me in the least. I am about her age, and while I have never been the focused mover-and-shaker that she is, what I have known and seen is pretty similar. I have spent my whole life listening to people of her demographic making statements like that “proud of my country” one. It’s part of what being a person of color in America in this historical moment is.

Crucially, this strain of sentiment is not, necessarily, the way you actually think in a logical sense. There are two yous. Call it a new version of the Double Consciousness W.E.B. DuBois wrote about. In Sonia Sotomayor there are two souls striving in one Latina head: one the dispassionate jurist, the other the underdog at the barracks. No one should be surprised that she is both an A-One judicial thinker and also a member of La Raza. Welcome to Accomplished Middle-Aged People of Color, Twenty-First Century.

She herself, elsewhere in the now famous Berkeley speech, knows about this double consciousness in, at least, America as a whole.

America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension. We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race- and color-blind way that ignores these very differences that in other contexts we laud.

She might as well be describing herself. And it means that quite often as we move on, we are going to find that people of color being vetted for high positions will turn out to have made comments like the “wise Latina” one and/or to have belonged to organizations whose politics are far to the left of their public positions and actions. At times such people will even contribute further indications of their right-brain side, such as Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Nation of Cowards” passage.

I suspect it’s too much to ask of our commentariat to view demonstrations of this Double Consciousness as patterned, typical, and unrelated to people’s public intent. One thing we can know is that countless media brouhahas in the future – possibly including President Obama’s next Supreme Court pick – will turn on this same split identity in people fashioning informed senses of identity as people of color in a society in transition.

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