JOHN MCWHORTER JUNE 9, 2009
This idea that Sonia Sotomayor's line that a "wise Latina woman" has an advantage in judging over a white man is racist can be taken in two ways.
One is that the people saying this are just playing politics. The other is that they are as curiously deaf to what the term racism means as they assail liberals of being, standing right alongside their bugbears such as Jeremiah Wright in slowing America's progress towards "post-racialism."
What Sotomayor has meant is that a Latina woman is better placed to render judgments because being a member of a minority group makes one especially alert to being perceived in various ways as an other, and that being a member of a minority group of disproportionate poverty lends one sensitivity to the difficulties of being poor and how our concepts of justice might be informed by that.
There is indeed a certain smugness in the statement, as if to be a middle-class white person is to inherently lack the empathy, imagination, or just intelligence to filter one's judgments through walking in other people's shoes.
However, Sotomayor rather plainly did not mean that Latina people are in some inherent way, possibly genetic, better posed to render legal judgments than white people.
Now, if Newt Gingrich and company are aware of this but have been slinging the R-word around as members of a political party on the ropes trying to whip up the base, then it's not pretty but it's pragmatic. When has politics ever been fair, and whence the idea that politics will somehow primly avoid the single third rail of racial sensitivities?
However, if this crowd hear Sotomayor's statement and genuinely suppose that she was stating that people of Latin heritage are inherently better judges than white ones, then they are exhibiting a peculiarly unreflective paranoia, proposing that naked, stoo-pid racism lurks behind every tree in 2009--just as they are so disgusted to hear when a liberal pulls the same kind of thing. They are ignoring the obvious context Sotomayor assumed an intelligent listener would fill in, such as that Latinos are a disadvantaged minority group in a country run (mostly) by whites.
Yet these are the same people who tell us that one of the cardinal sins of the left is seeing racism everywhere. And indeed we saw more than a little of this sort of thing from the left last year.
Cries of racism when Hillary Clinton mentioned that Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed were Exhibit A: this was a simple historical fact, brought up by someone justifiably arguing for her richer governing experience than Barack Obama's. The fact that certain people didn't like hearing the fact evinced, out of a preference that Martin Luther King stand as the sole Great Savior of black America, did not mean that Mrs. Clinton's statement was "racist."
At that time, there were the same two possible interpretations, both of which seemed to play a part. On the one hand it was handy for Obama fans to bash Mrs. Clinton as "racist" as a sharp-elbowed political ploy. However, there also seemed to be a genuine sense of offense among many--Representative James Clyburn's sincerely injured "We must be very, very careful about how we speak about that era" was a case in point--genuinely supposing that a lifelong Democrat in need of the black vote would casually stand up and dismiss the significance of Reverend King.
Our national discussion on what racism is has become dismayingly incoherent from both sides, and we seem poised to see this in living color, so to speak, in the new conversation on identity politics occasioned by Sotomayor's nomination and impending decisions on Affirmative Action.
For example, Justice John Roberts' line on Affirmative Action that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race" is a know-nothing canard. When racial preferences mean tipping the scale to a person of color when qualifications are equal, then the claim that this must be dismissed as "discriminating against" whites neglects the coherent argument that redressing the injustices of the past is of value to a morally advanced nation.
Obama has based his nomination of Sotomayor on this principle, and opinions like Roberts' are the kind that lead to comments along the lines of Latinas being "wise" in a way that Roberts reveals himself not to be.
Objecting, one must grapple with the fact that in most such tipping-the-scale cases, the whites in question are poised to be granted what their merit indicates in another slot. Given how few applicants of color qualify for top-ranked schools, for example, how many white students with top grades and SAT scores find no place in any of them? (This argument is best put forth in William Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River, a book wrongly considered the last word on Affirmative Action but which does have some good points.) Where is the "racism" here in any useful or coherent sense?
But then, the idea that when people of color don't do well on a test, the test must be deigned "discriminatory" - where that word is intended to mean of "unjust" (i.e. "racist") impact on said people -- is equally incoherent. Social history leaves some groups with less immediately available chops in excelling on standardized tests and in other areas (as I have argued), and the solution is to identify why, as Richard Nisbett's new book does, rather than fashion a rhetorically athletic claim that the task in question is "racist." As long as other explanations for the discrepancy exist and have been argued for by people who evidence no signs of mental debility or sinister intention, then facile claims of "racism" qualify as either cynical rhetoric or blinkered alarmism.
In a recent op-ed, Jonah Goldberg is sadly correct that liberals "invite everyone to a big, open-minded conversation, but the moment anyone disagrees with them, they shout ‘racist' and force the dissenters to figuratively don dunce caps and renounce their reactionary views. Then, when the furor dies down, they again offer up grave lamentations about the lack of ‘honest dialogue'."
I have argued that the reason for this is that what is meant by "honest dialogue" is an acknowledgment that racism remains the warp and woof of America. In an America that has elected a black President by a wide margin, that conception of a "dialogue" on race is indeed obsolete. However, those on the right do the country they claim such a love of no favors by falling into the same knee-jerk claims of "racism" they so revile from the other side.
One cannot claim a greater insight into the nature of our conversation on race while assailing Sonia Sotomayor as a racist for saying that growing up as a poor person of color might enhance the ethical dimensions of one's legalistic reasonings in a multiethnic society riddled with socioeconomic inequality.
Make no mistake--you might decide that she is mistaken. But tarring her as a "racist"? We may not be "post-racial," but surely we can do better than this.