Ian Haney-López, San Francisco Chronicle
By Ian Haney-López, San Francisco Chronicle
Newt Gingrich claims Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, is a racist who should withdraw. The evidence? In a 2001 speech at the UC Berkeley School of Law, Sotomayor posited that racial identity matters in how judges make decisions. She said: “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.”
Is this racism? If it’s racist to even mention race, then certainly the answer is yes. But the argument that any mention of race amounts to racism is foolish.
We live in a country with a long history of racial exclusion, the legacy of which lives on today in racially skewed distributions of wealth, segregated neighborhoods and workplaces, racially monolithic schools and unequal access to political power, President Obama notwithstanding. Is it racist to notice reality?
Likewise, our society is bursting with cultural differences and vibrant communities deeply connected to racial identities. We take pride in our own heritage, even as we seek to learn from and enjoy the traditions and values of others. Is it racist to appreciate diversity?
Fifty years ago, the country was in the throes of great social upheaval. The term “racism,” connoting a moral condemnation of race supremacy, was only then coming to be widely used. Up until then, the belief in white superiority wasn’t seen as immoral, but instead was generally accepted as self-evident.
The civil rights movement changed the nation’s moral position on race, making the word “racism” a powerful epithet for the injustice of elevating some and oppressing others because of skin color. To call someone a racist today draws on the moral credibility of the civil rights movement.
But crying “racism” has also become a way to end any frank discussion of race, as well as any effort to undo racism’s legacy.
This technique turns opponents’ rhetoric back at them. In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education ended segregated schools, forbidding states to use race to consign students to inferior schools. Fighting the requirement of integration, a court in South Carolina soon announced that “the Constitution is colorblind; it should no more be violated to attempt integration than to preserve segregation.” The opponents of racial progress announced that it’s always wrong to use race – a claim they press primarily when opposing race-conscious reform. So what about Sotomayor’s remarks? In her speech, she grappled with the question of whether identity matters in judging. She questioned Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s aphorism that a wise old man and a wise old woman will reach the same decisions in deciding cases – in other words, that identity doesn’t matter.
Sotomayor disagreed, arguing that experience and perspective – which are shaped by many things, including race and gender – necessarily inform how judges think about the difficult questions they confront. Because identity matters, Sotomayor explained, judges have an obligation to consider their perspective, drawing from it what they can, while attempting to transcend its limitations.
She said: “I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I re-evaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. … We who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage, but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”
Does this sound like a racist? No. It sounds like someone wrestling frankly with the heterogeneous identities we previously used to erect inequalities, and on which America now seeks to build its strength.
Ian Haney-López is the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the UC Berkeley School of Law.