Tuesday, June 2, 2009

racist for calling out racism?

From Bluegrass Bulletin...

on the criticism of racist remarks by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor...

BB cites South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham:

"What she said is that based on her life experiences is that she thought a Latina woman, somebody with her background would be a better judge than a guy like me -- a white guy from South Carolina," Graham said. "It is troubling, and it's inappropriate and I hope she'll apologize."

She should apologize-- at least some mealy-mouth talk about people misunderstanding what she meant but it was still insensitive, etc. It'll be interesting to see if she does, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Such is (typically) life in politics.

24 Comments:

At June 3, 2009 at 8:16 AM , Blogger Kevin Lockett said...

Just one question: Did you read the context of her comment? It would appear to me that if you did, you'd see how Graham's assessment totally misrepresents what she is saying.

If you actually look at what she said, she is outlining the strengths and pitfalls of her own experience - she can use it to better understand a case, but she must always be sure to uphold the law.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 10:28 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Kevin, thanks for the question.

Yes, I've read the context-- and giving her the benefit of the doubt, I don't see this as that big of a deal. We know who she is, more or less, and that she'll be ok for liberals and not ok for conservatives. This is mostly politics. BUT...she should apologize-- at least marginally-- for what could easily be perceived as an insensitive remark.

Two other thoughts:

1.) My call for an apology is quite consistent with what is asked (or even demanded) of those who make similar sorts of awkward statements. In this instance, the shoe is on the foot of those who more frequently make such demands. I'm not saying that it's a better world to passionately pursue such concessions. But to be consistent, she should reciprocate, yes?

2.) Context cuts a few different ways. When we hear Lindsey Graham say something, we filter it through a certain lens. (And I don't think that lens typically helps our perceptions of his remarks.)

When we hear Sotomayor say something-- who was chosen by Obama who has said a number of things-- then we filter it through those lens. Her rulings on race make it revealing &/or stupid for her to say something like that in that manner. And his history with Rev. Wright makes his race-related choices more suspect.

So, context takes her off one hook but attaches her to another hook.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 2:29 PM , Blogger Lissie-Beth said...

I'm just a white girl attempting to understand all this.
(Can someone post the context? - I couldn't find it.)

a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life"

But, In or Out of Context --

First of all, Any one of us could say this to any other. You haven't walked a mile in my shoes, nor I in yours. My experiences have affected me; yours have affected you - so what? Does this have something to do with Interpretation of Law?

Secondly, Switch It Up a little -- a "wise white woman with the richness of his experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a black woman who hasn't lived that life".
Very Racist, no matter the "context"

3) Regardless of context, she used very poor judgment in making this type of statement publicly, which would naturally lead one to question her "judgment".

I agree that an apology would be in order.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 2:40 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Here's the paragraph (hat tip: The Volokh Conspiracy)-- enough context to let her off the first hook (described above), I think.

But Lissie-Beth, you make another "wise" point-- that comparing experiences is a difficult task. On the one hand, we could comfortably say that the experiences of the average adult put them far ahead in terms of wisdom and discernment-- in comparison to a 11-year old. But comparing adults is challenging...

"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."

 
At June 3, 2009 at 3:34 PM , Blogger Kevin Lockett said...

If you look at the next paragraph or two, she goes into greater depth explaining what she meant. The explanation for the "wise Latina" statement comes after, not before.

We have to remember that it doesn't make sense to make one-to-one comparisons. White people are not a historically oppressed group in America, so their collective experience provides a different context for their statements than that of minorities. So saying, "what if a white woman said that" isn't a fair comparison.

For example, consider that (and this is admittedly a generalization, but I think a fair one) whites in America usually can survive in society without having to confront the issue of race. White people never have to "act black" in order to get ahead, and rarely have to wonder about the role that their race plays in their life. They see people who look like them represented as the norm of society. They're not overrepresented in special ed classes or prisons. When confronted with such issues, they can brush them off by saying "I'm colorblind."

Minorities don't have that privilege. They have to deal with such issues. It's a matter of survival, not of choice. For a black man to be successful, he has to confront what it means to be black in a way that a white man does not. The same is true for other races, ethnicities, and for women. So, when it comes to a case that involves race, minorities have stretched their intellectual muscles in that area in a way that whites and men may not have.

If you look at the rest of Sotomayor's speech, she explains that this results in the need for two things: A) that minorities have to be careful to use their experience to make them more informed, but not to make insert bias (and I would think this would be a good strategy for all judges) and B) that white and male judges need to begin to exercise their intellectual muscles in ways that their race and gender may not force them to.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 3:47 PM , Blogger Lissie-Beth said...

Kevin,
I agree that white people do not know what it is like to live as a black, Hispanic person in a society in which these individuals have been historically opressed.
I understand where they may be coming from does that make it OK for Hispanic, black people to make these types of "racist" remarks?

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:04 PM , Blogger Debbie H. said...

I'm fascinated by the people who seem to think judges can truly be totally "objective" when interpreting the law anyway. There is a really interesting story in this link that pretty much shows how much sense it made for Sotomayor to even say something like she did:

http://faculty.msb.edu/hasnasj/gtwebsite/MythWeb.htm

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:04 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Thanks, very much, for your thoughtful and candid comments on this, Kevin!

I agree with much if not all that you have said here.

As the father of two African-American children, I've had a greater opportunity to think about these issues than the average majority/white person. That said, I can't get there all the way, obviously-- since my experiences are still not nearly the full thing.

I agree that context matters, that experience matters, etc. But one just can't say "it" that way-- at least in the current political and social environment, without taking a hit-- at least if we're going to apply standards with any consistency.

To one of your other points: The irony is that she's in a bit of hot water for making a "one-to-one comparison" (or even less helpfully, a group comparison).

One other irony: one would expect S&O to be *more* sensitive to such things than the average person, precisely because of their experiences. Does their context bring a different lack of muscle to the table?

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:06 PM , Blogger Lissie-Beth said...

Leaving out the question of race --As has already been commented, it is very troubling that even given context, she appears to be saying that her experiences as a [insert Sex/Race] make her more qualified to reach a "better conclusion" in cases of law, than someone with different experiences.

As was previously commented, life experiences are not supposed to influence interpretation of law.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:09 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Great point, Debbie...Skimming the article, it looks interesting; I'll try to read it later tonight. Thanks!

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:16 PM , Blogger Kevin Lockett said...

I don't think she was comparing herself to a white man (although she would have a point if she was). I don't think what she said was racist. I didn't when I heard just the one sentence, and I especially didn't when I read what she said next.

However, I could see how some, especially whites, would see it that way if they didn't read or understand the explanation that she gave. The fact is that I hear black people say this stuff all the time because we have a basic understanding of race that I think whites don't have. I think if you look at what Sotomayor said next, it's a good explanation of her comments and may take the edge off of them for those who don't have the experience of being a minority.

And of course, she never intended her comments to be cherry-picked this way eight years later.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:33 PM , Blogger Lissie-Beth said...

Hi Debbie,

I agree that it would be difficult for anyone to be completely impartial in making decisions in legal cases - but aren't they supposed to TRY. Are judges supposed to write papers explaining why their particular set of experiences makes them more qualified to make a better judgement - or reach a "better conclusion" - what exactly does this mean?

Eg. If you have a close family member who was killed in a drunk driving accident, should you seek to be impartial and stick to the law in these types of cases brought before you as a judge, or should you write papers explaining why you are better at making judgements in these cases, whatever that means?
(I guess this would mean favoring the victim's family and seeking the harshest penalty for the defendant?) Just an analogy that appears to work.

Plus she is being considered for the U.S. Supreme Court, not County Judge Executive

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:46 PM , Blogger Lissie-Beth said...

Hi Kevin,

Doesn't "racism" involve making "judgements" and generalizations about people based on the color of their skin/ethnic background?

Isn't she doing this, at least to some degree?

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:50 PM , Blogger Kevin Lockett said...

Lissie-Beth, you're right that judges should try to be impartial, but how can a judge be impartial if he or she doesn't acknowledge the role that his or her experience plays in the way they process information? The fact that minorities or more likely to be forced to confront their the role their race plays means that they are also more likely to have taken the first step toward impartiality.

Also, the example you gave is good, but consider this one:
I'm a former public school student and a secondary education major. Let's say after five years of teaching, I decide to go to law school, become a lawyer, and then an federal appellate judge. A case comes before me concerning the discriminatory nature of high-stakes testing. I would hope that my experience as an educator would better equip me to render a judgement. I would be more familiar with the vocabulary, and have seen first hand the factors at play. I would have real-world experience and "behind-the-scenes" knowledge that other judges may not. I would be more familiar with the relevant research and literature than other judges.

On the other hand, I would need to be very reflective about the way I interpreted the facts. I would need to acknowledge my own pre-conceived notions and challenge myself to focus on the case at hand, even as I use my experience to better understand that case.

I would think that this pattern of thought would also apply to race-related cases, in which a minority would have first-hand experience with the dynamics at play, and be more concious of potential pitfalls.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 4:57 PM , Blogger Kevin Lockett said...

And, yes, racism involves making judgements based on race, but not every "black people ________" or "Lations _______" or "white people _________" comment is racist. If I say "white people don't know what it's like to be black," did I make a racist comment? I don't think so. I don't think Sotomayor's comment was racist, first, because it is true, and, second, because it wasn't about what races inherently are, but rather about how we engage race in the United States. Minorities and whites have different collective experiences. Minorities have to deal with race in a way that whites don't. This means that we see the world differently. Is that a racist thing to say?

And, Eric, I don't think she was making a one-to-one comparison. What one-to-one comparison did you see?

 
At June 3, 2009 at 6:44 PM , Blogger Lissie-Beth said...

Hi again, Kevin,

Well, noone knows exactly what it's like to be anyone else.

A statement like, "White people don't know what it's like to be black", is categorical, and could be interpreted as racist.

Without any type of context, I assume that what you mean is that white people don't know what it's like to experience discrimination because of their skin color. This would be untrue and could be considered racist.

I have a very close (white) family member who was the minority in her workplace environment (by about 20 to 1) and tried desperately to "fit in" for years but was never accepted, and was even persecuted to a certain degree. It created severe emotional stress, but she could not leave because she carried the insurance benefits. Someone (not her) eventually reported the activities and the workplace was investigated as to the charge of "hostile work environment" and things did seem to improve.

But of course, if you mean that pretty much all white people (though not completely all) do not know what it's like to have forefathers/mothers who were lynched and beaten and ripped apart from their families. Some of the things, even in children's books, are very hard to even read about because they are so horrible.
Some very small percentage may - so it's still difficult to make this kind of statement just based on skin color.

Certainly, judges should not be saying it and should apologize if they do.

As far as partiality, your point is well-taken, however, she does not specifically say in what way she will use her life experiences in judging cases. There should have been specifics given if she is to make such a bold statement. It does not appear that it will be to provide only certain factual "knowledge", but rather in relating her shared background/life experiences as a minority (woman, Latino) to her judgement (in lieu of the law?), which could be concerning.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 8:49 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Part of this is semantics. If racist means a race-based statement, then yes. If racist is used with its usual pejorative flavor, then no.

It was a one-to-one comparison in that she was comparing her experience to a hypothetical other. More broadly, she was generalizing and comparing two groups.

In general, group generalizations are less useful than individuals, so I'm actually happier with her statement as an individual thing.

Experience is a funny thing. In principle, it can be helpful. But if interpreted or generalized improperly, the irony is that experience can lead us astray.

If I'm in HR and the last three grads of school X I hired were dogs, then my experience is good news (more likely to recognize an X grad for what he is), but also bad news (more likely to fail to recognize good X grads).

 
At June 3, 2009 at 9:24 PM , Blogger Kevin Lockett said...

So then you recognize this and are extra careful to give applicants from school X a fair shot. You work to make sure you're not prejudging them. That's what Sotomayor was talking about.

Also, remember she said "I would hope that a wise Latina woman..." meaning this is not even an absolute. Here hope isn't that her race or even her experience would make her a better judge, but that she would have the skill and presence of mind to make it an advantage and not a disadvantage.

This is something that all successful minorities have to deal with: I have this weight, this baggage that comes along with being non-white in America. How can I marshal these experiences to make me better at what I do, rather than to have them make me less capable of doing my job.

And then, she acknowledges that there are white men who stretched their minds to account for the experiences of those not like them, and admonished the white men who heard her speech to learn from them and choose to seek out information that their race and gender don't necessarily force them to learn.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 9:27 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I agree. But it's still not the best way for her to have said it! ;-)

 
At June 3, 2009 at 9:53 PM , Blogger Kevin Lockett said...

Eric, I see where you're coming from, but I think everyone has that one sentence branded into their mind. I think it would have been a horribly worded statement if it had been intended to be only a brief statement. But it wasn't. I think we do Judge Sotomayor a grave disservice by not looking at her words as they were intended to be evaluate - in context. The people to whom she was speaking that day heard her words the way they were intended.

So I guess I agree with you and disagree with you at the same time.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 10:04 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

We probably agree in full-- or close to it.

I don't think it should be this way. But the nature of politics is sound-bites and each side takes whatever ops they can to mess with the other.

We should be quick to apologize when we fail to phrase things carefully enough, especially in sensitive arenas. If I said something wrong or insensitive-- and was called on it-- I hope I would apologize in a heartbeat. (But again, you're rarely going to find that in politics.)

The other exacerbating factor is the extent to which we see "political correctness" or hear claims about "tolerance". These two factors tend to help in some ways and aggravate in other ways-- in either case, encouraging people to mess with people who say things like this.

Again, thanks for your candor and perspective. I've enjoyed the dialogue.

Grace and peace to you and yours...eric

 
At June 3, 2009 at 11:02 PM , Blogger Lissie-Beth said...

Hey! No Fair!
I just came back from being out all evening and you guys have this all wrapped up! :)
But, I'm sure there will be a "next time" :)

 
At June 3, 2009 at 11:03 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Debbie's article is excellent. I recommend it and will post on it later.

 
At June 3, 2009 at 11:38 PM , Blogger Lissie-Beth said...

I skimmed it but didn't have time to read the whole thing.
Looking forward to your summary!

 

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