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Identity Politics is not just Black and White

Identity Politics is a difficult issue, because (if you’ll pardon the pun) it is not just black and white. The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has raised issues of identity politics and discrimination, which one would hope would lead to a public discussion of these issues (the same way that Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary comments led to Obama’s speech about racial issues). But unfortunately, I think in this case both liberals and conservatives are getting this one seriously wrong.

The heart of the controversy is a line taken from some comments that Sotomayor made at UC Berkeley in 2001: “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.”

The reaction from conservatives is that Sotomayor is an activist judge who would allow her identity to influence her decisions as a justice on the Supreme Court, rather than just ruling on the law. Some conservatives have taken it a step further, calling her a “racist”. The liberal reaction to these comments has ranged from laughing at the idea that a member of a minority could be a racist, to attacking conservatives for being racists themselves (the pot calling the kettle black argument).

Is it laughable that a member of a minority could be a racist? Of course not. Just yesterday I posted a blatantly racist comment from Manuel Miranda. I believe that saying that a woman, or a Latino, or a member of any other group is necessarily better qualified at any job (including being a judge) is a racist statement. Let me explain.

A few days ago I was listening to a panel of women discuss gender in politics. At first they were talking about qualities of women in general (such as empathy) that might make them better politicians. But then they veered off into an area that had me shaking my head. They asked whether Obama had enough women in his cabinet — as if just being a woman was itself a qualification, rather than those qualities that women are likely to have.

If this doesn’t sound like a problem, let’s look at a historical example from the opposite perspective. I remember well a case from many years ago where many police departments were fighting hiring women to be cops on the beat. They cited the fact that men are generally stronger than women, and strength is often required in order to subdue a struggling criminal. They started with a fact — that in general men are stronger than women — and veered off into making being male itself a qualification. But being male isn’t the right qualification. After all, nobody would deny that there are some women who are stronger than some men. Their argument was also hypocritical, as anyone who has seen overweight donut-eating policemen can attest.

The real answer, of course, was that if strength was a valid requirement for the job, then they should create standards and qualifications for strength and hire only people who meet those qualifications (regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc).

While a trait of a group should never be used as an excuse to limit employment to members of that group, there are times when it is acceptable to select someone based on their gender, race, or other characteristic. Simple examples are things like bathroom attendants, or a club that wants to hire only female strippers.

Another example is when you are picking people to represent a group. Then membership in the group can be a qualification. As Sotomayor pointed out, people’s life experiences do affect their judgement. And members of a group will more naturally identify with someone who is a member of the same group. For example, when creating a commission to represent an ethnically diverse city, it is only sensible to pick an ethnically diverse group of people to serve.

Furthermore, sometimes people’s identity can itself be a qualification. I think that Obama not being 100% white makes him a better president because it sends a very strong message, both inside and outside the US. But that doesn’t mean that I think only blacks are qualified to be president, or that we should only have black presidents from now on.

But these cases where group identity is itself a qualification are — and should be — rare. Most of the time, group membership should have nothing to do with job selection or other judgements. Part of the reason why conservatives thought they could use Sotomayor’s comments as a wedge against her is that many people resent affirmative action and other things that imply the hypocritical position of “it is only racism when whites do it”. Unfortunately, the Obama administration fell for the trap set by conservatives and responded poorly. Their response was to make excuses for her comments, saying that they were simply a poor choice of words. But CQ Politics has revealed that Sotomayor used exactly the same words in at least two other speeches.

Obama is always more effective when he tackles problems head on, rather than making excuses. The real answer to complaints about Sotomayor’s comments is to show the context of her comments. If you read the entire speech (which some reporters are apparently too lazy to do) it is obvious that she was saying that people’s experiences do influence their judgement (something that even Republican Supreme Court Justices have acknowledged). She even added that judges have a responsibility to resist this influence and rule fairly and impartially.

In addition, I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying that someone with a certain set of life experiences, in general might make better decisions than someone who didn’t have those life experiences. Sotomayor wasn’t promoting those life experiences as a qualification for the job — she didn’t say (or even imply) that all justices should be Latina women, after all.

This would have been a perfect opportunity to bring up the issues of reverse discrimination and identity politics and discuss them in an intelligent manner. Unfortunately, it looks like we might miss that opportunity, and liberals and conservatives are equally at fault.



  1. starluna wrote:

    I too would like to see an intelligent discussion of identity politics. I am part of a group of people who are trying to improve Latino political participation and this is an issue we struggle with all the time. Do we support a particular candidate because they are Latino? What if they aren’t the right candidate. The experience of Alberto Gonzalez really woke up the Latino empowerment movement to the dangers of not being more thoughtful about who we support in positions of power. This is in addition to the discussions we have on our own personal identities, depending in part on our skin color. I personally have struggled with the choice of whether to be a “Latina professional” or a “Professional Latina.”

    However, I don’t think we can rely on the mainstream media to foster such a conversation because it can’t happen in 15 second soundbites or 15 minute “discussions” (a la Tavis Smiley).

    But, one of the things that this whole brouhaha over Sotomayor’s comments about your life experiences influencing how you view something is that it shows that we haven’t made as much progress as we think we’ve had.

    Adam Serwer discussed the conservative reaction to Sotomayor’s comments in relation to the exact same sentiment by Samuel Alito during his confirmation hearings. He hit it on the head for me when he said: “Taylor and Buchanan, while attacking Sotomayor, have inadvertently made the case for a policy they’d like to see eliminated [affirmative action], by proving that all things being equal, a minority woman is held to a different standard than the white man of similar background and experience.”

    Saturday, June 6, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  2. Daniel wrote:

    Well, I think both the OP and the first comment raise some good points but they also overlook two facts.

    The first fact is decisiveness. I honestly believe that Sotomayor was a racist pick in the same way that I believe that Clarance Thomas was a racist pick. I have read decisions by both and, at a basic level, they are both competent judges. But the fact of the matter is that there are at least 1000 if not more equally capable people out there who could be on the Supreme Court right now. The fact of the matter is that Sotomayor was chosen because she had brown tits. That wasn’t her only qualification by any means. But if we are honest it was the decisive one. Her gender and her ethnicity were the reason she got the nod and all those other capable people didn’t.

    One comment that I read somewhere else was that it was folly to pretend that white men don’t have a race and a gender. And that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that all people put the same weight on their race and gender. Sotomayor is correct when she says that race and gender shape who you are. But some people see those biological facts as an issue to overcome or transcend and other people see those facts as something to celebrate and some other people are altogether indifferent to the whole issue. We shouldn’t confuse the discussion of what a person’s identity is (does Latina or professional go first) with a discussion over whether race and sexual identity is (or should be) an important issue at all.

    Myself, I was opposed Sotomayor from day one and it had nothing to do with her race and her sex. I remain opposed to her because the last thing we need on the Supreme Court is another god damn judge. The SC is way too insular in terms of the legal profession and it has become down right incestuous. It’s sick. And even worse, she’s a former prosecutor. 50% of all federal judges are former prosecutors. Again, it’s incestuous and it’s sick.

    My own opinion is that Sotomayor is another Clarance Thomas. And I get angry at identity politics because at the end of the day I simply think there are more important things in life than the color of one’s skin and what plumbing you have between the legs. But I know in that vision I am a definite minority in this country.

    Saturday, June 6, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  3. starluna wrote:

    Plenty of study and experience has demonstrated that it is white men who have the tendency to forget that they have a race (and a gender). This lack of recognition both supports and is supported by privileges that they don’t even realize exist.

    I think it is best portrayed in the belief that the only reason that Sotomayor got the nomination because she Latina. I highly doubt that anyone claimed that the only reason that Roberts, Alito, Souter, Kennedy, Stevens, or Scalia were nominated was because they had white tits and whiter dicks. But when a non-white woman is nominated, than it is only because she is a woman and is non-white.

    Unfortunately for those of us who wear our ethnicity on our skin, or for those of us lucky enough to only wear it in our names, we do not have the luxury of not being hyper-aware of our identity. This is another double standard that people of color are burdened with. Only we have to prove that we are qualified. White men never question, and are never questioned about, how their backgrounds influence their perceptions of the world or how they got to the positions of power they inhabit (whatever those may be). Non-white people and women are not only asked, they are forced to think about it constantly because they are regularly accused of not being good enough to be in the positions they are in or not deserving of those positions.

    This is why the discussion around identity politics matters. Indifference is a domain that is only habitable by people in positions of power and privilege, and the apathetic who support them. It is only people who inhabit privileged positions who seem to be questioning Sotomayor’s “qualification”.

    I think a more important question is, at the end of the day, when a decision has to be made between equally competent and qualified persons to a lifetime appointment in one of the most important policy making institutions in the country, why shouldn’t we choose the person who at least symbolizes, if not actually embodies, the progress we actually want to see in this country?

    Saturday, June 6, 2009 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  4. Daniel wrote:

    Thanks for that follow-up Starluna. It’s an excellent example of the real imcompossibility of views.

    “why shouldn’t we choose the person who at least symbolizes, if not actually embodies, the progress we actually want to see in this country.”

    Because, as I articulated. That’s NOT the progress people want to see. Certainly that’s not the progress I want to see and it has nothing to do with my race.

    And that is just the imcompossibility. If you start from the perspective that race matters, then race matters because it matters because it matters. Everything is racial by definition. As you say, race is not a luxury. On the other hand, if you start from the perspective that race is an inherently meaningless concept than it’s a meaningless concept because it’s a meaningless concept. Race precisely is a luxury. And it’s people who wear race on their arm that don’t understand the privileges they have.

    Neither position is discussable, let alone arguable. They are what they are and violent physical war is the only possible solution in the long run to see which position is the stronger. You would think that we would have learned this lesson from what happened in the Baltics. But alas, no.

    Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 7:09 am | Permalink
  5. starluna wrote:

    I think you mean incompossible, which some have argued is a logical fallacy. There is no rational or logical support for the notion that multiple realities cannot exist simultaneously. Whenever two people have the exact same experience but interpret that experience differently, you see compossibility.

    To take from your argument, it is possible that those most aware of their racial/ethnic identity are not aware of the privileges that inhere in that identity. I would argue that this is not probable, even if possible, and I have a mountain of research to back it up. I encourage you to read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Unvisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh for a primer.

    The more important point you raise is what sociologists call the Thomas Theorem which states that if you define something as real, it is real in its consequences. There are two interesting aspects to this as it pertains to race relations and identity politics. First, non-white peoples aren’t in total control of the definition of our identity. Just like other immigrant groups before us, the definition of “Hispanic/Latino” is imposed by a society that is characterized by social cleavages defined in part by race. Italians were not white until after WWII. As my aunt who used to live on a reservation in Southern Arizona tells me, “We didn’t know we were Mexican until the border crossed us.”

    Second, in order to create a society in which gender and ethnic identity is not relevant, we actually have to focus even more on gender and ethnic identities. This seems to be a paradox, but is not only logically coherent, but materially important. We can’t address racial disparities in health by pretending they don’t exist. We can’t address the lack of ethnic or gender diversity on the Supreme Court, which I would argue is a problem, by pretending that race and gender do not matter. If they didn’t matter, then there would already be more women and more people of color on the Court. I personally believe that this is the progress that most of this country wants, as evidenced by the election of black president whose middle name is Hussein and the support for Sotomayor found in poll after poll.

    I actually enjoy being Latina and I would not give up my identity for all the power and money in the world. I suspect that you feel the same about your identity and you should. So question then becomes: when does identity matter? I would argue that when it comes to making decisions about who gets into positions of power, it is legitimate to consider the history and identity of that individual and what that individual brings to that position. And when considering what a person brings to a position, you cannot ignore the larger social role of that position. Supreme Court justices’ primary function is to interpret the Constitution. But the position is also a social position that is a reflection of the society that we live in. When women and non-whites are passed over for these positions of power, we as a society not only reify unjust racial and gender power relations, we demonstrate to ourselves and the rest of the world how unequal our society is.

    Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  6. Sammy wrote:

    Since when, in our adult lives that is, has the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice NOT been politically motivated?

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink

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