Thursday, July 16, 2009

Judge Sotomayor

and White Male Privilege

Have you noticed that the Senate Judiciary Committee seems fixated on Judge Sotomayor’s gender and ethnicity? I have a theory about that.

This week I have been following the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings with Judge Sotomayor regarding her nomination to the Supreme Court. [Hi. My name is Lisa, and I’m a news junkie. My evening typically starts with leaving work about 5:00, turning on my local NPR affiliate radio station in the car and when I get home, then flipping over to the PBS Newshour at 6:00.]

It seems to me that the one item about which Senators (especially the Republican Senators) have hammered again and again is the statement she made in 2001, 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 has not lived that life.” That statement seems to have sent many of the Senators around the bend.

In its July 14 coverage, the Newshour reported this exchange:
[PBS correspondent] KWAME HOLMAN: … Committee Chair Patrick Leahy moved to pre-empt Republican criticism in his opening questions.
He asked Sotomayor about her much-debated 2001 remark that "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 has not lived that life."
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: So tell us. You've heard all these charges and countercharges, the "wise Latina," and on and on. Here's your chance. You tell us -- you tell us what's going on here, Judge.
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, Supreme Court Justice Nominee: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to explain my remarks. No words I have ever spoken or written have received so much attention.
As my speech made clear, in one of the quotes that you referenced, I was trying to inspire them to believe that their life experiences would enrich the legal system, because different life experiences and backgrounds always do. I don't think that there is a quarrel with that in our society.
I was also trying to inspire them to believe that they could become anything they wanted to become, just as I had.
The context of the words that I spoke have created a misunderstanding. And I want -- and misunderstanding -- and to give everyone assurances, I want to state upfront, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial, or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge, regardless of their background or life experiences.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the explanation did not satisfy Alabama's Jeff Sessions, the committee's ranking Republican. When he pressed the point, Sotomayor said she had tried a rhetorical flourish that fell flat.
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: It was bad, because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case, but that's clearly not what I do as a judge. It's clearly not what I intended.
In the context of my broader speech, which was attempting to inspire young Hispanic, Latino students and lawyers to believe that their life experiences added value to the process.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Well, I can see that, perhaps, as a layperson's approach to it, but as a judge who's taken this oath, I'm very troubled that you would repeatedly, over a decade or more, make statements that consistently -- any fair reading of these speeches consistently argues that this ideal and commitment -- I believe every judge is committed -- must be -- to put aside their personal experiences and biases and make sure that that person before them gets a fair day in court.
Then Senator Sessions turned to her 2005 statement at Duke University that the court of appeals is where policy is made.
[PBS correspondent] KWAME HOLMAN: That led to an exchange over the nominee's broader view of how a judge's background could influence decisions.
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Never their prejudices. I was talking about the very important goal of the justice system is to ensure that the personal biases and prejudices of a judge do not influence the outcome of a case.
What I was talking about was the obligation of judges to examine what they're feeling as they're adjudicating a case and to ensure that that's not influencing the outcome.
Life experiences have to influence you. We're not robots who listen to evidence and don't have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings and put them aside. That's what my speech was saying...
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, Judge...
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: ... that's our job.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: But the statement was, "I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage, but continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate." That's exactly opposite of what you're saying, is it not?
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I don't believe so, Senator, because all I was saying is, because we have feelings and different experiences, we can be led to believe that our experiences are appropriate. We have to be open-minded to accept that they may not be and that we have to judge always that we're not letting those things determine the outcome.
But there are situations in which some experiences are important in the process of judging, because the law asks us to use those experiences.
I am struck by the fact that the Republican Senators seem to be fixated on the notion that Judge Sotomayor’s gender and ethnicity might come into play in her judgments on the Supreme Court.

Has any Senate Judiciary Committee ever fixated on the gender and ethnicity of the straight white males who have always dominated the Supreme Court? If not, why not? Why are they terrified of this Latina woman?

What I hear Judge Sotomayor saying is that a Supreme Court justice should recognize the biases that s/he might bring into his/her deliberations, try to set them aside, and then make a just decision. Isn’t that just simple logic?

It strikes me that the (supposedly) straight, white, male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have probably never had to ask themselves whether their White Male Privilege has ever made them biased in their judgments and decisions.

Apparently, it’s only The Other that frightens them.

All this reminds me of my friends Michael and Dirk – partners for something more than 20 years. Dirk is a white man; Michael is black. Every now and then, they will be ignored or get lousy service in a restaurant or other retail establishment, in ways that suggest it may be because Michael is black. Dirk is hilarious when he gets his back up and barks: “Don’t they know I have White Male Privilege?” There’s always an ironic [even if unspoken] “hrrumph” after his quip.

The enlightened, gay Dirk realizes that he benefits in this culture from White Male Privilege. Our U.S. Senators aren’t as smart as Dirk. They don’t realize their privilege or their unexamined assumptions.

14 Comments:

Blogger ncmama said...

You are dead on target with this, Lisa. The sorriest aspect of unearned privilege is how it operates over-privileged folks' lives without being seen to do so.

Cheryl Mack

7/16/2009 9:11 PM  
Blogger ncmama said...

You are dead on target with this, Lisa. The sorriest aspect of unearned privilege is how it operates over-privileged folks' lives without being seen to do so.

Cheryl Mack

7/16/2009 9:11 PM  
Blogger IT said...

Senator sessions was turned down for a judgeship some years ago because of his connections to racist organizations.

7/16/2009 9:22 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, Cheryl.

I was really ticked that the white guys on the committee were oblivious to their privilige.

7/16/2009 9:45 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Woah!! I didn't know that, IT. Can you provide a link?

7/16/2009 9:46 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

IT is correct. Sessions called an African-American aid "boy" on a regular basis and the NAACP a "communist organization." Now, just a little walk down memory lane, but I think it would be fair to say that in Sen. Sessions' state the judges who tried many an African-American man and sent them to prison or to the gallows were not "objective" in applying the law by any means. No, they brought all sorts of bs to their decisions, but because they were in power and assumed themselves as default, sometimes unconsciously, the law was applied in all sorts of malicious ways. But Sen. Sessions seems incapable of making those connections.

7/17/2009 12:38 AM  
Blogger ROBERTA said...

did you hear Pat Buchanan's remarks on Rachel Maddow tonite. WOW....I had no idea there was such white male discrimination going on in our country! :)

7/17/2009 1:33 AM  
Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Spot on, dear Lisa!

And sadly so.

7/17/2009 2:42 AM  
Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Sessions also called a white lawyer who defended black clients "a disgrace to his race".

I don't understand what he has in the Senate or Judiciary committée to do.

7/17/2009 2:44 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for the additional info, y'all. And I knew you all would "get" this, too.

Stuff like this hearing makes me realize how far this nation still has to go.

7/17/2009 7:31 AM  
Blogger Hilary said...

Also, these white men would never be asked to make speeches designed to inspire kids (as Sotomayor has done); their white privilege is revealed to them through private clubs and legacy hires and college admissions.

7/17/2009 9:11 AM  
Blogger --Susan said...

Lisa,
I was thinking about this on my way to work as NPR was telling yet ANOTHER story about the white boys taking issue with a latina. I know people with whom I work are getting weary of my rants. Privilege of any stripe falls hard. It also apparently usually causes blindness because it seems to me that those who have it just can't see...
--Susan

7/17/2009 9:25 AM  
Blogger --Susan said...

Roberta,
Thanks for the Rachel headsup. I missed the show. Wow. Incredible. I cannot comprehend the whole white male thing but I'm blown away that someone in 2009 in these United States would argue so emotionally, passionately even, for the supremacy of white men.
--Susan

7/17/2009 11:13 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I heard a hilarious line this morning on NPR's "Wait, Wait .. Don't Tell Me." They had a quip about "straigh white guys being oppressed by wise Latina women." It was a LOL moment.

7/18/2009 9:39 PM  

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