By Anonymous (not verified) on June 10, 2009

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 pmproj@progressive.org.

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Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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