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Deconstructing Sotomayor

As published in San Diego News Network

Vince Vasquez

Friday, June 12, 2009

Much has already been written about President Obama’s nomination of federal judge Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court, but not much has been substantive or meaningful to the American public, which may live under her judicial rulings for decades. I (as any Latino or non-Latino should) am waiting for a comprehensive scrutiny of her views, professional background and qualifications before weighing an opinion on her suitability for the highest judicial office in the land. One thing however is clear: her nomination perilously lures America back into the murky waters of old identity politics.

With the relentless pressures of the modern-day 24-hour news cycle, reporters and pundits have notably raced to stay atop the Supreme Court story heap. Some in the media who lack legal backgrounds or working relationships with Sotomayor were curiously quick to come to a roaring approval of the low-profile magistrate, publishing complimentary columns and editorial endorsements within hours of her May 26th nomination. Others were presumptive, such as the New York Times’ May 26th editorial “The New Justice,” or egregiously waxed and overstated the “meaning” of her nomination, such as TIME Magazine’s May 27th headline, “Picking Sotomayor: Bridging the Black-Latino Divide,” and a May 26th Associated Press article entitled “Historic Nomination,” which ran in more than 90 different news outlets. What was most striking (and intolerable) was the gamut of articles that insinuated broad, sweeping support from “the Latino community,” an amorphous term that obscures the complex, fragmented nature of Hispanic heritage.

A simple poll of everyday people on the street could confirm that Latino viewpoints on Sotomayor’s nomination are as diverse as the people themselves, but too few journalists took the time to be intellectually honest in this regard, opting instead to repeat the tired narrative that a high-ranking non-Caucasian government appointment is a “win” for the community. Such a sense of strong cultural cohesion in fact does not exist. According to a 2002 Pew Hispanic Center national survey, the majority of Latinos in America principally identify themselves by their ancestral country of origin, with few opting for the pan-ethnic notion of “Hispanic” or “Latino.” The cultural differences that distinguish say Puerto Ricans from Mexicans are pronounced, and are widely self-recognized; 85% of Pew’s survey respondents agreed with the statement that “Hispanics from different countries all have separate and distinct cultures,” with only 14% of respondents agreeing that they “share one Hispanic/Latino culture.” Moreover, Latinos are split on the idea of a shared political agenda – only 43% of Pew respondents agreed that “Hispanics from different countries are working together to achieve common political goals.” This fact gives further hope that the falsehoods that appear in the mainstream media are not accepted by those that are most harmed by them.

It should be noted that the idea of a universal Latino struggle or common cause (“La Causa”) is a relic of the old ugly racial politics of division in our nation that professed life in America as a zero sum game, where winners gain at the expense of losers. The old racial politics decreed that Latinos and all ethnic “minorities” are deserving of different measures of success in society, and require entitlements and special government set-asides to overcome their inequalities over more established Caucasians. Slots for “disadvantaged” students at public universities must therefore come at the expense of the advantaged; reparations must be paid by today’s generation for historic wrong-doing, and so the thinking went. Though this political ethos thrived for decades, it came at the cost of greater gains – few minority candidates won elected office outside of local contests with large ethnic populations, and perceptions of ethnic tokenism persisted in the public at large. Even Latinos (whom are overwhelmingly Mexican-American) that view Sotomayor’s as a “win” do so at the risk of disenfranchisement; as Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez noted, “Because the media and the political elites make no distinction among Latino groups, Mexican Americans may find themselves waiting a very long time for one of their own to be nominated to the Supreme Court.” With the perpetuation of the old identity game, Latinos are insultingly lumped together and politically relegated to only matters pertaining to those who look like them, allowing true equality in the office and the classroom to prove elusive.

Enter Barack Obama. President Obama’s ascendancy to the White House was a victory for not only the presidential candidate, but for the new era of ethnic politics that allows every American to transcend the political prism of racial division, and to be weighed and judged equally, regardless of the color of their skin. Though he is conscious of his ethnic identity, he has worked hard in his professional career to be a public servant that represents all people and interests, not just those of a few. In short, he is not perceived as “a black President,” but simply the President. His national competitiveness confirmed that Americans are accepting of diversity in power and will reward merit if given the chance. Obama’s election was preceded by the popular dismantling of legacy race-based policies in the 1990’s, such as affirmative action and bilingual education in the classroom, and the more recent election of other non-Caucasian candidates to higher office, such as Indian-American Bobby Jindal to the Lousiana Governor’s Office. Obama is the zenith of new ethnic politics, so it was surprising that he selected Judge Sotomayor, who has left a peculiar trail over the last few decades that suggests she is seeped in the old racial politics of the past.

In addition to the now widely-panned “wise Latina” remark, she has also proudly proclaimed that she is a “perfect affirmative action baby,” having been accepted to Princeton and Yale University despite her less-than-competitive test scores. More worrisome is her stated belief that “cultural biases” are “built into testing,” reinforcing the notion of different standards for different people, which she appears amenable to. As a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Sotomayor sided with the decision of the city of New Haven, Connecticut to throw out the results of a test employed to promote firefighters after no African Americans earned a score qualifying them for promotion, denying advancement for the seventeen Caucasian test takers and one Hispanic whom took the test and would have qualified for consideration. One must wonder: if her perspective on race in America can seemingly influence her judicial rulings today on the Court of Appeals, then why not tomorrow on the Supreme Court?

Though our nation has made great strides in achieving a true sense of equality for all, our work is far from over. Americans still demand new approaches and viewpoints to equality and justice in our country; according to a new Quinnipac Poll released this month, a strong majority of Americans (55%) favor abolishing affirmative action entirely, with only 36% opposed. It is entirely reasonable for Judge Sotomayor to be conscious and vocal about her identity and her Hispanic heritage, but the public deserves to know if she believes in fundamental racial differences between people that must be rectified through the law. Where Sotomayor stands on this important issue and many others remains to be seen, and she should be afforded a fair and open hearing to explain her past judicial rulings and her views. She should insist that members of Congress vote on her confirmation based upon her qualifications, not on any notion of making historic milestones or to curry political favor. Such an action would be in spirit of our new march to equality, and would allow for her probable confirmation to be not only a source of pride for those who identify with her ethnic background, but for every American as well.