That “Wise Latina” Problem: Racism or Racialism?

It’s always blackly humorous when an uncomfortable truth lurches out into the middle of our prevaricating world and causes people, many of them highly intelligent, to start tying themselves in knots and committing little acts of intellectual hari-kari.

I refer of course to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s comment about the “wise Latina” and the WL’s  apparent superiority of judgment over a white male judge.

The very long speech  from which it comes is here if you want the fullest context. Here’s the full graph in which the WL comment appears:

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.

I’m sure the nominee will rephrase and restate and refine these comments during her confirmation, because for all the context that’s here, we still need more.

Is the judge saying that in every conceivable case, the WL will reach a better conclusion than the white male?  If that’s what she means, the remark is absurd on its face and racist–or at least (see below) racialist— to boot. And everyone who wants to weigh in on this debate, include the various Beltway Prevaricators, ought to have to take a shot of truth serum and admit what we all know in our hearts: Any white male judge who had made such a remark would be cast out as a racist scumdog; in fact, he wouldn’t even be nominated to the Court. The remark would be a dealbreaker.

Is there any way in which these remarks could be defensible? If Judge S. had made a more limited claim, yes.

Suppose she had said, “I can think of any number of situations involving immigration law or gender equity or access to family planning in which a wise Latina, by virtue of her ethnicity and gender, might bring to the case insights that might bring about a better conclusion than you might get had the case been heard solely by white males.”

I can go with that. As Henry James said, “We see what we bring,” and there’s no doubt that Judge S.  brings something that can be valuable from time to time in the court’s deliberations.

But here’s the problem that pops up once you start down that racial/ethnic/gender-magic road: You have to grant, by your own racial logic, that white males also have certain insights by virtue of race and class that would make them more perceptive and “wise” than blacks or Latinas depending on the case at hand.  The logic can’t apply only to WLs;  if you as a woman know things I as a man cannot know, then the converse must be true as well. And on and on, through Native Americans and  gay Filipinos and transgendered Irishmen-cum-women.

So  does the incendiary “racist” tag apply to those in the Wise-Latina school?  Maybe. But going a level deeper, what the remarks really imply is “racialist” ideology; the belief that, deep down, we are not all the same. We are creatures of different ethnic and gender tribes; blood, finally, is supreme, on the Supreme Court and everywhere else.

We have gone a long way toward accepting this “wisdom of the blood” tribalism over the past 30 years. It would not be wise at all to go further.


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