The cries of distress about “identity politics” which have issued from Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh over the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court make me almost feel sorry for them. Poor privileged white men. Their stranglehold on power is slowly being loosened.
Strangely, they have lost sight of their own identity as white males. Do they not bring their own life experiences into decision-making, whether they serve on the Supreme Court, a corporate board, or in the U.S. Congress? Could it be that the white male model has been the template for so long that any American who deviates from this assumed norm is threatening to bring “identity” politics into their decisions? Or, have they simply forgotten—or worse never considered—that identities different from their own have a rightful place in the power structure of a democracy?
Limbaugh went so far as to call Sotomayor a “reverse” racist for claiming that sometimes a strong Latina woman may be better than a strong white man. Hasn’t their assumption been that a white man is almost always better than any woman, indicated by the fact that Sotomayor, if confirmed, would be the third women in history to serve on the court, compared to two black and hundreds of white men?
But what we are talking about is not just ethnicity, which is significant by itself, but more importantly, we are talking about bringing a radically different kind of life experience to the Supreme Court. Her white male critics delude themselves into thinking that they have not brought their relatively privileged life experiences into their spheres of influence.
We see the world through the lens of all our experiences; that is a fundamental part of the human condition. The fact that I was brought up by a single mother, came to this country as a child, has influenced my views.
How could Sotomayor’s experience of being brought up by her mother, of being the first person in her family to go to college, of having vaulted over the hurdles of poverty and discrimination to get there not influence her? Better yet why shouldn’t it? Life experience is not something to be denied, but to be celebrated. Yes, decisions must be in keeping with the law, but the law has always been, and will continue to be, open to interpretation.
We need only look to Sandra Day O’Connor who was highly respected by both conservatives and liberals. When she left the court she was lauded for her practical interpretation of the law. She had the unusual ability to see what impact legal decisions had on everyday lives.
During a case regarding search and seizure, she questioned the impact of forcing people out of a car if there was a pregnant mother in the back seat who had to get out in the rain.
Who else could imagine a pregnant mother, a poor mother, a struggling student, or understand discrimination, but a strong Latina woman whose parents came to the United States when Puerto Ricans were looked down upon in the same way as many Mexicans are today?
Nothing in Sotomayor’s brilliant record indicates that she would rule on a case by ethnic identity alone, but everything in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court indicates that the search for perfect justice will be better served by validating her life experiences—which reflect the life experiences of so many Americans.