A few words about identity politics.
That’s the knock on Sonia Sotomayor, who was nominated to the Supreme Court last week by President Obama. If confirmed, Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican, will be the first Hispanic to sit on the nation’s highest tribunal.
That has traumatized some titans of the right. George Will, for instance, complains that “she embraces identity politics, including the idea of categorical representation: A person is what his or her race, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference is, and members of a particular category can be represented, understood, empathized with only by persons of the same identity.” Some go further, alleging that Sotomayor’s ethnicity carried greater weight with Obama than her qualifications.
That argument would be a lot more persuasive if the right (Will, to his credit, was the exception that proved the rule) had raised it when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate on the basis of her chromosomal makeup. Sotomayor, at least, has the aforementioned qualifications. Palin, not so much.
Point being, so-called “identity politics” are practiced at both ends of the political spectrum. And I’m not at all convinced that’s a bad thing — particularly where the high court is concerned.
I intend no endorsement of Sotomayor. Let’s wait and see how she does before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I’m particularly interested in hearing how she explains her quoted remark that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience” will usually have better judgment than “a white man who hasn’t lived that life.” Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich have thundered with simulated indignation that the comment makes her a racist. It sounds more like attempted irreverence fallen flat, but she needs to address it.
Assuming she ascends to the court, Sotomayor will be the 113th person to do so. Of her 112 predecessors, 108 have been white men. Folks who profess concern about identity politics would do well to keep those numbers in mind, illustrating as they do that race and gender have never previously been absent from decisions about who sits on the court.
That a point so blazingly obvious even needs making speaks to the myopia afflicting many white people when the subject is race (and men when the subject is gender). It is a stark illustration of white and male privilege: in this case, the privilege of questioning the role someone’s identity plays in their promotion only when that identity diverges from the perceived norm, i.e., yours.
Contrary to what some would argue, it is a net good when the panel whose decisions shape the nation “looks” something like the nation. Contrary to what they’d have us believe, legal judgment is not simply a matter of quoting precedent and applying logic. It is also a matter of “interpretation” and interpretation is shaped by who you are and what you’ve known.
If precedent and logic alone were definitive, the court could not have decided, for instance, to endorse segregation in 1896 in clear violation of the 14th Amendment. But because of who they were and what they had known, that panel of white men somehow interpreted the amendment as allowing Jim Crow — a tragic travesty that stood for 58 years.
Would the court have been well-served in 1896 had someone likely to be impacted by the ruling been there to offer a counterbalancing interpretation? If the court is debating an issue of importance to women, is not the quality of its deliberation improved if someone in the room is in possession of a uterus?
Yes, emphatically, to both.
Ensuring the presence of diverse people in the deliberation chamber betrays no American principles. Rather, it affirms a core American promise: Liberty and justice.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.