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Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has nothing to apologize for.
A comment she made in 2001 has become the crux of conservative attacks on her worthiness to serve on the high court. Even President Obama has said that her choice of words was poor.
But from my vantage point as a scholar of race and American history, Sotomayor’s remark needs no apology.
Here’s the comment in question: “A wise Latina, with the richness of her experience, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who has not lived that life.”
What did Sotomayor mean by that?
She meant that life experience matters in how we see and engage the world — and how we make decisions.
If it doesn’t matter, then all the emphasis in our society on diversity is meaningless. But as a society, we’re committed to diversity because we recognize the value of having various perspectives that stem from having different backgrounds and experiences. Where we come from does not dictate what we believe but it does inform our beliefs.
A Latina would bring a different set of questions and sensibilities to the table, or the bench in this case, than a white male or female that hasn’t walked in her shoes.
Now the second question is, does different mean better?
In some cases, yes. Here is why.
Privilege insulates us. Millions of white people are unaware of the indignities and hardships still experienced by blacks, Latinos, Native- and Asian-Americans each day in this country.
The infamous police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 or the more recent killing of an unarmed Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., earlier this year did not come as a surprise to blacks.
Many whites were shocked because they do not generally see, except on television, the routine injustices that go on in poor urban black and brown communities.
Similarly, most men are less aware of sexism than women because women bear the brunt of sexual harassment and violence.
Privileges of all types give us the luxury of not knowing about others unless we choose to. We can roll up the car window, look the other way, turn off the television and pretend that everyone lives the way we do, that is unless we have racism, poverty, sexism or homophobia slapping us in the face when we get up each morning.
So a “wise Latina” would have a wealth of experience that someone from a more privileged background would not likely have.
Sotomayor’s remark doesn’t suggest that white men are somehow intrinsically bad or unaware but that they have a more limited range of experiences than women of color who often live in two worlds, or as the distinguished black scholar, W.E.B. DuBois once wrote, live with a “double consciousness.”
So, Sotomayor’s comment reflects an understanding of the substance and not just the cosmetics of diversity.
A Puerto Rican woman from a poor neighborhood in the South Bronx should bring her unique experiences and sympathies with her to positions of power. And if she sympathizes with groups of people who, for too long, have been ignored or invisible in our society, that is a strength of character — not a character flaw.
Such sympathies would make for a caring and compassionate jurist.
At the same time, Sotomayor’s own hard-fought success and her writings and court decisions in all their complexity mean she is neither naive nor simplistic in her approach to life or the law. I only hope she relies more, not less, on her “Latina wisdom” if she is confirmed.
Barbara Ransby is an associate professor in the department of African-American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of the award-winning biography, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision.” She can be reached at email@example.com.