Monday, June 01, 2009

Sotomayor's Pick-up Line

The 'Racist' Uproar Over Sotomayor's "Wise Latina" Comment

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences...our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice [Sandra Day] 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....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.

Why did someone as smart as Sonia Sotomayor say such a dumb thing? Because until recently these were the dumb things you were supposed to say without thinking--conventional feel-good lines about the importance of diversity. They were throw-aways, like "How are you?" (please don't tell me)--political pick-up lines.

Back in the old days "What's your sign?" was a conventional conversation starter--polite social discourse in mixed company. You weren't expected to take astrology seriously, but you certainly weren't supposed to dispute it. It was part of the soothing background noise that filled otherwise embarrassing silences--cultural muzak. You expected it to be there, but you weren't supposed to listen to it much less criticize it as if it were real music.

By the latter part of the 20th century, identity politics was cultural muzak: padding for committee reports and the stuff of mission statements. No one took it seriously until Rev. Wright, during his 15 minutes of fame, announced that black and white children thought with different parts of their brains. Then Americans discovered they didn't like it one bit.

There was however a legal angle. The Bakke ruling made it illegal to use affirmative action as a remedy for societal discrimination. There were very good reasons for affirmative action, most particularly, as a mechanism for leveling the playing field where implicit bias and outright discrimination still put women and minorities at a disadvantage. To be safe though, and to stay within the constraints of the law, advocates of affirmative action policies had to pretend that the rationale was the promotion of "diversity." It was a Noble Lie.

In addition, the cultural myth that women and people of color had something special to contribute could be cited to make the case that it was in everyone's interest to desegregate schools, neighborhoods and places of employment. Women's gendered "management styles," employers were told, were good for business. Citizens were urged to recognize ethnic diversity as a social benefit, adding color, variety and cultural richness to their local schools and neighborhoods. Instead of appealing to altruistic motives, advocates of fairness pretended that desegregation was a matter of self-interest.

Noble Lies are eventually exposed. It always seemed to me that it would have been better to tell the truth in the first place. Women and members of ethnic minorities are disadvantaged by implicit bias, for which there is ample empirical evidence, and ongoing discrimination. Discimination in most cases is virtually impossible to prove, particularly since most is unintentional and innocent. As employers, educators and citizens we are not, for all our good will, gender- or color-blind. So for all practical purposes, gender- and color-conscious policies are currently the only feasible way to off-set the consequences of bias and, in the end, to achieve gender- and color-blindness.

But that's not the way politics, whether governmental or academic, works and why I'm no politician. Politicians have to play cultural muzak for the same reason that, in normal social settings, socially competent individuals have to make appropriate light conversation. "Hot enough for you?", "What's your sign?," "So, what do you think of the Padres this season?" I only learnt late in life that most people don't really want to do conversation most of the time, much less argue. For many, conversation is just background noise, an excuse for some other sort of non-intellectual personal contact (not necessarily sexual) that they enjoy.

Sotomayor was just making conversation and, in spite of conservative's attempts to inflate it, most Americans recognize that. Still, one hopes that given the lessons of the presidential campaign and Americans' professed repudiation of identity politics, we will stop making that particular kind of chit-chat.

1 comment:

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