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.