Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Wise Latinas and the Republicans Denial of the Existence of Both Race and Racism

Because I am an unbelievable dork, I have found myself listening to hours upon hours of dry, mind-numbing coverage of the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. I can't help it, but I'm a sucker for the sights and sounds of democracy in action, excruciating and glacial though it may be in this case.

Needless to say, at times I have been bored and frustrated by the drab non-answers that the process demands of nominees, as real candor is punished. Cards are held altogether too closely to the vest for my taste, but I understand that eggshell-walking is the only way to really go in one of these things. Sad though it may be, on the off-chance one right-winger feigns offense and starts a large enough media-circus, the whole house of cards of the nomination falls. Lord knows I wouldn't want anyone parsing my past statements this thoroughly...nor could I keep my temper in check when being misquoted by Jon Kyl or Jeff Sessions.

What is really troubling to me, as opposed to mildly frustrating, is the continual batter on the now infamous "wise Latina" quotation. For the record, this is the quotation in some context:

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.

(For the full text of the lecture, see here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/us/politics/15judge.text.html ...yep, the New York Times...that liberal hack-rag has the indecency of putting whole texts up as opposed to cynically excerpted soundbites)

So, first and briefly, a defense of the statement: Language and rhetoric are not universal and are, when used by thoughtful individuals, not conceived in a vacuum. This excerpt is from a lecture entitled "A Latina Judge's Voice" delivered as the "Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture" in 2001 at the esteemed University of California Boalt Hall College of Law. Contextually, Judge Olmos was a distinguished alumnus of Boalt who dedicated his time there to recruiting minority students and worked to promote equality and dialogue among people from diverse backgronds. His namesake memorial lecture series was founded in his honor to promote diversity and dialogue. In short, the premise of both Judge Sotomayor's lecture was to inspire law students to seek out a diversity of opinions. It was also intended to inspire those of non-traditional judicial backgrounds (e.g. those not of white, priveleged backgrounds) to understand that their voices and perspective matter and should be cherished. In this context, these words make sense.

Now, let's cut through the shit: I'm a bed-wetting liberal who has long hoped for a more diverse Supreme Court, but I'm willing to admit, the scandal surrounding these words is far from surprising. The phrasing was both short-sighted and impolitic. Slight modifications, such as "a wise Latina with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach an equally valuble conclusion" or even, perhaps, "different conclusion." She didn't say those things, of course, and thus the shitstorm.

That being said, Senators Jon Kyl, Jeff Sessions, and Lindsay Graham (amongst others, though these are the most pronounced Republican voices thusfar in the hearings) are parsing and evaluating Judge Sotomayor's words in manner that underscores a basic logical fallacy often promoted by the Right: they see things without being biased by the racial background and call shots with some sort of objectivity. This is, of course, absolute horseshit.

Firstly, the entire concept of objectivity is a fundamentally flawed concept. The unreliability of human memory, the undercurrents of bias within our own minds that we can't even comprehend on any conscious level, and the way the human mind makes decisions (often on some lizard brain level, later justified by the "conscious mind") make the entire of objectivity a tenuous notion at best.

No, what Senators Kyl, Sessions, and Graham identify as "objectivity" with regard to race or class or gender or ability or sexual orientation or any other socially salient identity is better described as "normativity." Mssrs. Kyl, Sessions, and Graham don't see things in terms of race. This is not abnormal, but rather the most pernicious and dominant yet subtle form of white power. (NOTE: I mean "white power" in the most literal sense, had I intended the neo-fascist movement, I would have capitalized.) As caucasians make up the majority of our population and a disporportionate majority of our power structures, whiteness is the normative status of race in American society. As the normative racial status, all other racial statuses become aberrations. Normative status gives whiteness that most coveted position in American culture: that of being un-raced or merely human. (NOTE: I am borrowing heavily from arguments laid out brilliantly i Richard Dyer's phenomenal and eye-opening book White. I am not citing specifically for two reasons: 1) I have not read this book in years, but remember over-arching arguments. 2) This is a blog that no one reads, not a dissertation.)

Senators Kyl, Sessions, and Graham (as well as myself, for that matter) get to walk through life, for the most part, un-raced. Our worldview may well recognize the races of others, but often fail to see our own whiteness because we have always been surrounded by white faces in our power structures. We see so much of it that we don't see it, we only see what differs.

Judge Sotomayor, however, has always been acutely aware of her race. From the television of her youth (Perry Mason, apparently), to the overwhelming whiteness of her classmates at Princeton, I can only imagine that Judge Sotomayor has always had her race visible to herself in ways that most whites never experience. Not only in acts of outright racism, but in all sorts of minor, quotidian ways too miniscule to even speculate about in detail, racial minorities in American society are constantly confronted with reminders that they are not of the majority, or normative, racial status. This is not always a bad thing. Not all reminders of one's minority status are unjust reminders of dominance in the racial hierarchy, just as not all reminders one's femininity are from the negative actions of patriarchy. One can be reminded that she is Latina in myriad ways and not all are negative. But to say that a Latina is ever not aware that she is Latina is probably quite fallacious. To paraphrase the aforementioned Richard Dyer: race may not always be the only or primary issue at hand in a given situation, but it is never NOT an issue.

So for Senator Graham to imply that were he to have said something akin to Judge Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment with the racial markers reversed that he would have be deemed unable to continue to serve in the Senate, while quite possibly true, is disingenuous and intellectually foolish. There is a false equivalency here between Judge Sotomayor's statement and Senator Graham's theoretical "wise white man" statement.

Moreover, Judge Sotomayor's statement was to show that she is aware that her racial background (as well as her socioeconomic background and her educational background and any and all of her other life experiences) informs her judgments. What Senator Graham is unable to see is that his experiences, including and especially his whiteness, inform his just as well. That she is cognizant of the lens through which she sees the world may well make her more likely to be able to at least attempt to step outside of it.

While some may propose a "colorblind" society as a way of subverting racial prejudice, this is a flawed these on two accounts: 1) It's impossible. 2) It denies us of the cultural variety that make both this nation and this world a very interesting and at times beautiful place. To ignore race is not to remove racial power structures, it is to set the world into a normative/deviant paradigm such as the one in which, apparently, Senator Graham lives with regard to race. We choose to not see race by universalizing our experiences as the norm in a way that can be quietly harmful. We must be cognizant of race, but not hierarchical or prejudicial in our cognizance. We, of the normative race, must struggle always to be aware of our whiteness and the rose-tinted glasses it gives us, even if we've only ever seen the world in pink.

An old joke: An old fish swims by a young fish and asks, "How's the water?" The young fish replies, bemusedly, "What the heck is water?" Judge Sotomayor's Latina wisdom lay in that she knows what water is. Senators Kyl, Sessions, and Graham may well not.

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