Friday, January 29, 2010

Shifting Blogs

You haven't heard from me for a while. Actually, I decided to shift - well, broaden - my focus. I have a new blog, The Pen Warrior:

If you enjoy LC21, you'll like this new blog. It's got lots of the same great topics, only with even more added in. In fact, I just posted an LC21-ish musing, so go check it out, and be sure to leave comments.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The "wise Latina" Comment

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.

Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

- Judge Sonia Sotomayor, 2001
Emphasis Added
That was long, but I put the full text because the context is important. Reading all of this together provides a context that has been missing in the debate over President Barack Obama's supreme court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor. The harshest critics have branded the judge as a racist, while others have suggested that the comments were a mistake. However, it should be obvious to any honest and informed observer that such a statement is neither racist nor mistaken. It seems clear that these words represents a basic truth: one's personal experiences matter in the decisions they make.

Some, including the President, have argued that the "wise Latina" sentences represented a poor choice of words. This would be a plausible explanation if the statement stood in isolation. However, in context it is clear that the original meaning of Judge Sotomayor's words has been twisted beyond recognition. Many on the right have repeatedly stated that she said she is a better judge than a white man because she is a Latina. Some have even extended this to be a statement of superiority, that the judge thinks she is better than white people.

It always amazes me that white people manage to get away with saying that minorities said things we never said.

Clearly, Judge Sotomayor was arguing a point with which there should be no argument: one's personal experience matters. If that were not true, than it would be OK to have an all white male Supreme Court for now until the end of the age. However, we know that such a bench would not be a good idea. How do we know that? From experience. We used to have an all white male Supreme Court. During this time, the Court denied citizenship based on race, upheld racial segregation, and ignored discrimination against women. I doubt that an African American who had the experience of using sub-standard, segregated facilities would agree that separate could be equal.

Think about it. Minorities have experiences that whites don't have. These experiences can prove useful in deciding difficult cases. If it were as simple as knowing and applying the law, then there would be no need for the multi-level appeals process that we have today. However, as we all learned in elementary school (or at least were were supposed to learn), it's the job of the courts, especially the Supreme Court, to interpret the law. Interpretation is always difficult, because different people always have different interpretations of the same thing. This is no different when it comes to the law. Again, all judges would agree on everything if this was not true. We know that judges often disagree sharply on the interpretation of certain laws. This disagreement is due, in part, to a difference in experience. Each judge forms there interpretation by drawing from a wealth of knowledge and understanding build up over many decades of experience. These experiences help them to understand a situation and, ultimately, pass judgement.

Considering all this, it's reasonable to assume that a diversity of experience would be a benefit to the court. I don't know how well Judge Sotomayor's parents spoke English when the emigrated from Puerto Rico, but I would assume that here experience growing up in a home with immigrant parents would give her a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding those who speak English as a second language, and better equip her to rule in cases dealing with such an issue. If there were a case involving discrimination against African American students in a public high school, I would hope that, being an African American who was once a student in a public high school, I would have a more intimate understanding of the forces at play, and thus be able to render a better ruling than someone who understands the situation only from words on a paper or brief verbal arguments.

But let's extend this even further. We live in a society in which whites constitute the dominant culture group. This creates white privilege, and one of the many unfortunate side effects of white privilege is that it is largely invisible to whites. This produces mass hypocrisy, such as when white commentators bemoan the fact that a Latina judicial nominee will be influenced by her experience as a minority, forgetting that their experience as a member of the racial majority impacts their own views. Another side effect is that, except for when they decide to complain about "reverse racism," whites are not forced to confront issues of race. Of course many do because they want to make our nation a better place and understand that the only way to do so is to confront and seek to correct its flaws. However, whites usually have the choice to ignore race but such blissful ignorance is not an option for minorities. This means that minorities usually have spent more time exercising the intellectual muscles that deal with racial issues. Their views are often more developed, complex, and comprehensive as this is a necessity for survival and success. As far as I can see, this allows for minorities judges to decide cases with greater clarity and thoughtfulness than an average white judge. Does this mean that minority judges are automatically better? No. But it does mean that in this particular area their life's experiences have forced them to develop skills that many whites have not, and when they do it is almost always by choice, not by necessity.

Furthermore, let's remember that one of the purposes of the court is to protect the rights of citizens. Who do you think needs more protection from the court: the oppressed minority or the dominant majority? Clearly the minority. Given this, there is a real benefit to having a minority perspective on the court - something which is currently non-existent (unless you count Justice Thomas, which I don't). Thankfully, there is one woman on the bench, but I'm pretty sure that women make up more than 1/9 of America.

So, would a "wise Latina women" be able to "draw on the richness of her experiences" to reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life"? I would say most certainly. But then, I guess according to conservatives I could never reach a fair conclusion on such an issue because I myself am a minority.

And white people are never biased.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Quick Note

Black people don't like Clarence Thomas. So when Republicans complain that Democrats got to oppose Thomas without alienating black voters, it just makes them sound out of touch and stupid.

Bonnie Sweeten Proves I'm Still a Default Criminal

This is the last thing that I wanted to write this morning.

Over the last few days, the nation has been gripped by the story of a mother and daughter abducted. The family is from Bucks County, just outside of Philadelphia, the same region I have lived in my entire life.

Today, I awoke to find out that it was all a hoax. I also found out for the first time (although there were probably others paying closer attention who already knew) that an Amber Alert had been issued, and that the mother, Bonnie Sweeten, had lead police to believe that she had been abducted by two African American men.

This was incredibly disturbing for me. Sweeten became just another in a list of white women in high-profile cases who faked crimes and described her assailant as black. In 1994 Susan Smith murdered her children, but told police that they were abducted by a black man. At the hight of the last presidential election, Ashley Todd faked being attacked by a black, male Obama supporter. One would imagine that there are other, less known instances of similar things happening.

Why do I find this so disturbing? Well, I really worries me that the default description of a violent attacker is "black man." How often do people trying to fake an attack blame a white woman, unless they're trying to frame a specific individual? Clearly, these women believed the best way to make their false reports more believable was to blame black men. Black men are seen as they typical violent criminal in the United States.

Even more disturbing is that we believe them. Having the attacker described as a black man makes society more likely to believe them. We build archetypes of what a criminal is supposed to be like. When someone fakes an attack, describing the attacker as a black man is effective because it does not disturb our preconceived notion of what a violent attacker is like.

Statistically, this is not rational. In a past "Stat of the Day" feature, I pointed out that whites are five times more likely to be attacked by a white person than by a black person. Yet, while whites are more likely to be attacked by other whites, they are more likely to believe that someone was attacked by a black male. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez points out the other side of this when discussing the Bostion-area Criagslist serial killer: we act shocked when white people committ crimes.

As I'm writing this, in the background Sara Jane Moore is being interviewed on the Today show. Matt Laurer points out how "unlikely" a criminal she is. How is that supposed to make me feel? What am I supposed to think when I hear that and realize that I do fit into the common conception of a violent criminal? How am I supposed to feel about the fact that, in this country, I'm still a violent criminal?

We have to realize that the way the media protrays black men - whether it's the latest in a long list of peretrators of violent crimes on the local evening news, or as out of controll thugs on white-owned BET - has a real impact on people's lives. It's the media that allows the majority of Americans to believe the myth that blacks are overwhelmingly more criminal than whites. For example, many justify racial profiling, saying that police are just targeting the groups that are more likely to comitt crimes. Yet, we know that whites are more likely to be found with contraband when stopped and searched by police. The media, especially those who claim to be real journalist, are being irresponsible by creating a false image of race and crime in the United States.

What's most disturbing for me is that this happened in Philadelphia. The idea that there are people living in my community who see someone like me as the typical criminal, and the fact that she believed that others in the area were disturbed enought that such a strategy would work - it all deeply troubles me.

Frankly, I'm sick and tired of hearing about how far we've come, or how Barack Obama is an achievement of Dr. King's dream, or how black people are not treated equally. I live in a country where the default definition of rapist or carjacker or mugger or kidnapper includes me because I'm a young black man. Is this supposed to make me proud. Is this supposed to make me feel like an equal member of this society? It doesn't. And I'm not ashamed to say that I'm not proud to live in a nation where I'm the default criminal.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Do the White Kids Have to do This, Too?

Consider these Backgrounds

Barack Obama:

  • Columbia University
  • Harvard Law School, first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review
  • Notably successful community organizer
  • Constitutional law professor, University of Chicago
  • Effective state legislator for seven years, popular on both sides of the aisle
  • History-making U.S. Senator
Sonia Sotomayor:
  • Princeton University
  • Yale Law School, editor of the Yale Law Journal
  • Professor and Lecturer at Yale and Columbia
  • Federal judge for the past 17 years, nominated for positions by both Democratic and Republican presidents
Colin Powell:
  • Four Star General
  • National Security Advisor
  • Only African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • First African American Secretary of State
Bill Richardson:
  • Congressman
  • Ambassador to the United Nations
  • Governor and Chairman of the Democratic Governor's Association
  • Secretary of Education
  • Harvard Professor
  • International Diplomat

I began with this list just by looking at President Obama and Judge Sotomayor, both of whom have such similar biographies. As I was putting together their list, I also though of General Colin Powell, who provides a representative from the right. He reminded me of Governor Richardson, who also has exceptional foreign policy bona fides.

What all four of these individuals represent are successful and socially accepted minorities with exceptional resumes. Success at Ivy League universities. A diversity of experience. The ability to excel at complex task. Great respect among colleges. Looking at them, I can't help but wonder, why don't we require the same from potential white leaders?

Consider George Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. By now we all know that Bush was able to go to Yale and Harvard in large part because of his father. He did not perform particularly well at these schools, and went on to be a rather unsuccessful business man. John McCain also performed poorly at the Naval Academy, although he did earn our nation's respect by showing genuine heroism as a prisoner of war. He went on to become a long-time U.S. Senator. Sarach Palin didn't do poorly at just one college - she went to five in six years to get her bachelor's degree. Of the three, McCain is the only one who can make a real claim to being a better than average elected official.

Would we accept such a resume from a non-white public figure?

What if Barack Obama was a sub-par high school student, but was admitted to Columbia and then to Harvard only because they needed to fill a quota of African Americans and didn't care who they got? What if when he got to those schools he performed poorly? What if as a community organizer he had run the organization he lead into bankruptcy and chaos? What if as a state legislator and U.S. Senator he had done very little of note? Would he still be President of the United States?

Or, what if he had attended Michigan State and Temple Law school - two quality schools with much less prestige - and still performed very well there? Would we have as much respect for him?

What if Sonia Sotomayor had struggled at multiple schools over six years to get her bachelor's degree, barely made it out of law school, barely passed the bar, and, a year and a half ago stumbled into a federal judgeship? And what if, during that brief time as a judge, she came under fire for ethics violations? Would she still be a legitimate possibility to fill a Supreme Court vacancy?

Or, again, what if she did very well at a less notable school? How would we look at her?

Now, go back to my original question - why don't we hold white people to the same standards? Why is it that non-whites must be exceptional - better than all the rest - in order to qualify? Why, when it's OK for whites to be good, do blacks have to be great? Why would a John Edwards cross the threshold of acceptability as a presidential candidate before Barack Obama? Why Joe Biden over Bill Richardson? How are Republicans questioning the qualifications of literally the most experienced SCOTUS nominee in 100 years?

And, what does this mean for me, and the thousands of non-whites like me who don't go to Ivy League schools, and who will likely work "regular-people" jobs when we graduate? For all the hoopla and national "good jobs" that surrounded President Obama's election, I still wonder "can I be president of the United States? Can I as a black man with a less than 4.0 GPA from a semi-public, North Philly university really be president?"

Why do we think it's a good thing to tell little black boys that they can be president if they work hard like Barack Obama? We don't tell them they could be president if they slack off like George Bush. The "Be Like Barack" movement is nothing more than an acceptance of inequality: "You still have to work twice as hard to get as far as white people, but you can still do it, so it's all good."

It's not all good.

Scratch that.

It ain't all good.