Sotomayor Was Right the First Time: A Wise Latina Does Know More

Supreme court nominee Sonia Sotomayor now-famously said, in 2001, that she would hope a “wise Latina would make better decisions because of her life experiences than a white male.” 

As she noted, those have become her most-quoted words, overwhelmed by a firestorm of opinion characterizing her as racist or worse.  Before long, she was forced to eat her own words (as in a Boston Globe headline, “Sotomayor Repudiates ‘Wise Latina’ Comment.")

She was right the first time.  A Wise Latina woman does know more. 

Notice your own reaction in this instant, after reading this blogpost title and that last sentence.

Most of you had a quick emotional reaction—negative for most, positive for some.  You interpret it as a political statement, and you probably made an inference about my own political views.

Let me try to find the rarified air wherein that statement has nothing to do with racism or politics, and should not provoke any emotions at all.  It is simply a statement about the dynamics of human beings when they are cast in roles of minority and majority.  It should provoke no more adrenaline than an observation about the feeding habits of penguins.

The Dance of Majority and Minority

People observe and believe very different things based on whether they are members of a minority, or of a majority.  One group, I suggest, notices more, and knows more, than the other.

This isn’t about race per se: it’s about a mixture of numbers and power.  Suppose Group A constitutes 70% of a culture’s population, and 85% of its economic and political wealth.  Groups B and C each represent 10% of the population, and 5% of its economic and political wealth.

All groups—A,B and C—will view Group A as the dominant culture.  The habits, opinions, styles, language, likes and dislikes, family patterns and ideologies of Group A will dominate in institutions, advertising, government, etc.

If you’re a young A person, you conclude that your culture is the norm.  Mathematically, you are absolutely right.  Emotionally, you conclude that you are also “right,” and that other cultures, being in the minority, are odd, unusual, out of the ordinary.

If you’re a young B or C person, you see the same facts.  You also know that A people are the norm–you can do the math too.  Unfortunately, you likely also internalize the majority view that B-ness or C-ness is somehow odd, unusual, out of the ordinary.

It is but the tiniest of steps from the above for an A person to judge a B or C person as “weird,” wrong, or inferior–and to simply not notice many differences. More insidiously, it’s also a tiny step for Bs and Cs to think the same of themselves.  (Being a minority is a helluva psychic challenge).

Each group understands the As.  But the As impute mainstream characteristics—which happen to be their own–to everyone.  Hence they literally do not notice many characteristics of Bs and Cs, assuming them to be identical to mainstream (and their own) ways of life.  The most “normal” Bs and Cs, to an A, are those who most resemble As.  (“But you don’t look Jewish…”)

An example: look at the photo on the top right of this page (go to the URL if you’re getting this by text).  In this picture, those are the feet of a white person.

Of all the feet on all the dashboards of all the cars in the US, what percentage of the time are those feet likely to be the feet of a black person?

a.    0%
b.    5%
c.    10%
d.    25%

If you’re a white person, you’re likely to guess a number in line with the black percentage of the US population.

But if you’re a black person, you know the answer is a, or just about 0%.  In the black community, putting one’s bare feet up on a car’s dashboard, or a table, is considered just plain rude. 

The reason white people don’t know this is that black people know what happens if they try to explain it.  Picture yourself as an African American, trying to explain to a white senator  that his kids are rude because they see nothing wrong with putting their feet on the dashboard.  Will the Senator hear it as anthropological information?  Or as insulting racist talk?  Take a wild guess. 

So we have:

1. Minority people (black, in this case) know what to expect from everyone on the foot test. 

2. Majority people (white in this case) do not know what to expect from everyone on the foot test. 

3. QED: minority people know more than majority people.  Sotomayor was dead right.

Then why did she repudiate herself?  Because majorities tend to hear statements of minority knowledge as insults to the majority.

And, since majorities can’t see what minorities can, it’s a losing battle to protest.  Easier to repudiate yourself.

If you’re white, and think that blacks overstate racism, then ask yourself: how emotionally disturbed was I by this headline?  If the answer was, ‘a lot,’ but you also see the point of this blog, then that tells you how deeply embedded majoritism (racism, sexism, etc.) is in this society.  Your gut instinct was to hear the truth as an insult.  Just like a Senator who heard "a double minority person knows more then a white male."

Very sad, perhaps.  Yet also, simply very true.
 

10 replies
  1. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    BEAUTIFULLY said, Charlie. Nice job clearly and succinctly articulating something with a lot of emotional and political charge. As someone who was born into an "A" culture, I think it is imperative for us As to make the effort to understand our own culture and how it impacts all the Bs and Cs out there — no easy feat as it is like the water in which we A fish swim. Thank you for having the courage to address the subject.

    Reply
  2. Philip J. McGee
    Philip J. McGee says:

    Well done Charlie, I needed that.  I played golf with some of the majority last Friday and felt I needed an acid scrub after listening to their comments about our President and our Secretary of State.  Of course the observer knows more than the perpetrator whether or not the perp is aware of his imprinting.

    Reply
  3. Beth Robinson
    Beth Robinson says:

    That’s a really great analysis.

    I never thought about it that way before but it makes so much sense that a minority member would, on average, have built an instinctual understanding of more perspectives than a majority member. Like every generalization, it won’t be true for some individuals, but that’s not the point.

    Thank you for this thought.
     

    Reply
  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi Charlie,

    So, four thoughts::
     
    First: the larger picture – I see the Sonia Sotomayor "issue" as a corner of a larger painting. The larger painting? We all are a product of our life experiences, especially those of us who protest how "objective" and "uninfluenced"  we are. No one lives life as a "tabula rasa" – a blank slate. Our beliefs, opinions, assumptions, worldviews, perspectives, etc. are formed as a result – protestations notwithstanding.

    A Latino enmeshed within a majority culture; a parent with a special needs child enmeshed in a larger culture of parents with "normal" children, a non-straight male in a larger culture of straight males; a war vet with PTSD living on a base with others who have never experienced war, an addict living among non-addicts, etc. Each of these individuals is an example of someone living from the inside out and will often have a different perspective on life than those in the "majority" who are "looking in," just by nature of their life experiences. What then is the nature of our need to judge another’s experience, especially to make another out as "bad" or "wrong" because their experiences are "different?" 
     
    Second: the real focus – I’m curious whether, for some, the issue is one of a "WISE Latina" or a "wise LATINA?" My take is that "wise" persons would arrive at similar decisions. So, if it is more about the LATINA and less about the "wise," why? Not unlike the folks who love to refer to human capital and always seem to focus on the capital, and seldom on the human.
     
    Third: an "identity" issue – when listening to, and reading, the negative reactivity to Ms. Sotomayor, I hear something akin to: "Who do you think you are?!" Or, "Why can�t you be more like me?!" That’s my interpretation. And then I feel we’re entering the uncomfortable areas of an "ism", or ideology and dogma, which translates, as it often does in political speak, "Heck, if you, as a ‘nobody’, are now going to be seen and accepted as a ‘somebody,’ well, then you’re chipping away at my ‘somebody-ness’, and I feel threatened." 
     
    Fourth: the truth – suppose we were told the feet in the photo belonged to a 45-year-old white female, with a Ph.D and CEO of a company that (1) designed, manufactured and sold patriotic-themed clothing and (2) directed her Church choir on Sunday. Initial feelings about her? And, then what might you feel/think if we if we panned back and see she’s sitting next to, and has her arm around, a minority male, or even female. Same feelings/reaction? Be honest.
     
    Then again, perhaps it’s not so much about the feet in the foreground as the "clouds" in the background that are getting in the way of a more honest perspective.
     
    Thanks Charlie for a truly provocative and honest tug on the sleeve. 

    Reply
  5. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Most discussions of Sotomayor’s statement pull the statement out of context.  To do it justice, read the full passage:

    "In our private conversations, Judge Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women. I recall that Justice Thurgood Marshall, Judge Connie Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench, and others of the NAACP argued Brown v. Board of Education. Similarly, Justice Ginsburg, with other women attorneys, was instrumental in advocating and convincing the Court that equality of work required equality in terms and conditions of employment.

    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.

    Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

    However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

    I also hope that by raising the question today of what difference having more Latinos and Latinas on the bench will make will start your own evaluation. For people of color and women lawyers, what does and should being an ethnic minority mean in your lawyering? For men lawyers, what areas in your experiences and attitudes do you need to work on to make you capable of reaching those great moments of enlightenment which other men in different circumstances have been able to reach. For all of us, how do change the facts that in every task force study of gender and race bias in the courts, women and people of color, lawyers and judges alike, report in significantly higher percentages than white men that their gender and race has shaped their careers, from hiring, retention to promotion and that a statistically significant number of women and minority lawyers and judges, both alike, have experienced bias in the courtroom?

    Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion. I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate"

    You can read Sotomayor’s complete speech here.

    Reply
  6. John Rooksby
    John Rooksby says:

    The article is pure sophistry.  Look:

    1. Minority people (black, in this case) know what to expect from everyone on the foot test.

    2. Majority people (white in this case) do not know what to expect from everyone on the foot test.

    3. QED: minority people know more than majority people.  Sotomayor was dead right. Obviously, by numbering these statements Green is specifically linking them.  Yet 1 & 2 pertain to the feet photograph question while 3 pertains to something completely distinct; that 1 & 2 may be true has NO bearing on Sotomayor.  So to use this pretend-logical conclusion to claim that she was "dead right" is incorrect and arguably deceitful.

    To suggest that an African American trying to explain to a white Senator that his kids are rude because they see no wrong with putting their feet on the dashboard will be taken as insulting is also nonsense (and racist too since it specifically implies that whites generally don’t realise that putting one’s feet on the dashboard (bare or otherwise) is bad mannered in the first place).  The issue has nothing to do with race but is one of etiquette; and I’d hope that Senators, of any colour, are smart and decent enough to raise their kids in such a manner that they don’t need anyone to complain about their rudeness.

    Sotomayor’s words in their proper context do little to exonerate her.  In fact, they reveal her to be someone apt to pretend she was brighter than she was.  For example, "were largely people of color and women." is grammatically ambiguous, implying that ‘color and women’ is a single thing (there should be a comma after ‘color’).  If this is merely a typo, her spoken meaning leaving the aspiring Groucho Marx no opportunity for wit, there is no doubt with this example: "our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging."  If using the word ‘will’ is correct then the word ‘may’ is redundant since ‘will’ denotes a certainty while ‘may’ only denotes a possibility.  Clearly Sotomayor is attempting to sound more erudite by employing a rhetorical convention such as ‘if and when’.

    Fellow poster Peter Vajda is correct that "wise persons would arrive at similar decisions."  Wisdom is not a gender issue – although Sotomayor’s words suggest she thinks it is.

    Reply
  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    John,

    Delighted to have your voice heard here, thanks for writing.

    Though in this case, I’m not buying it. 

    Simply put, you say "The issue has nothing to do with race but is one of etiquette."  That statement presumes that etiquette is universal, immutable and unchanging–that it doesn’t vary across race and cultures. 

    That, sir, is simply not true. In fact, it’s false.  And the example I gave is just one of a thousand examples.  Further, your willingness to presume that etiquette transcends culture provides yet another example of how majority culture assumes that what is true for them is true for everyone.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess you’re a part of the majority culture (as am I).  The assumption that etiquette doesn’t vary by race is a typical conclusion of someone from the majority.  In the logical form you stated it, it needs only one counter-example to prove it wrong, and I’ve given it–the foot example. You provided another example–the casual imputation of etiquette as culture-free. (In fairness to both of us, if the example were Americans going to Mongolia, we’d have little trouble believing that our notions of etiquette might be different–because we’d be the minority, whereas our majority hosts might consider us rude if we violated their (majority) rules of etiquette).

    Further, as far as I can tell my syllogism was perfectly right too.  The statement "X knows more than Y" needs only one example to prove it right, of the form "X knows Q and Y doesn’t know Q."  I gave that example, QED the statement was true. I grant you it’s a little abstract–because there are plenty of cases where "Y" might know more than "X," and the idea of adding up all the cases and making a judgement about the preponderance is itself somewhat silly.  True enough.

    I rarely rarely disagree with your fellow poster Peter Vajda, but here I’d stand behind the following statement: "people in a minority culture are better-positioned to have insights about majority culture than the people from the majority culture are likely have insights about the minority culture.  In that sense, and to that extent, the minority people have ‘more’ perspective."  (You can help me work out the right grammar on that sentence).

    And while it probably has to be a thought experiment, I’d be willing to be that more minority people than majority people would agree with that statement.  Which I’d consider to be proof of a sort.

    John, thanks for writing and engaging in the back and forth.

     

     

     

     

    Reply
  8. John Rooksby
    John Rooksby says:

    Charles, your reply is just more sophistry – which, in the interests of truth, should, if possible, be shown for what it is.

    I was referring to a specific aspect of etiquette that is common across the races which you specified in the article.  For you to take me as meaning this applies universally across all races and all cultures the world over is a disingenuous misinterpretation.  The fact is, your foot test assertion was about African Americans and white Americans only and my answer should be taken accordingly.

    Of course etiquette is not culture-free but this is an irrelevance that you’ve brought in to cloud the truth – sophistry.  Rules of etiquette supersede culture when one enters a culture different to one’s own.  If a black person enters a predominantly white culture, etiquette demands that they observe white codes of etiquette, and vice versa.

    Your foot test presumed that white Americans generally disagree with the African American view of putting one’s feet on the dashboard without evidence for this.  I’m white and I, along with all the white people I know, am of the same view as that which you cite as being African American specific.  Then the answer given by blacks has the potential to vary according to factors of context that are unknowable from the photograph e.g. what race is the driver, what are the circumstances of the journey, what is the relationship between the passenger and the driver, to name but three.

    You say that the assumption that etiquette doesn’t vary by race is “a typical conclusion of someone from the majority”.  This is also nonsense.  It could be true if the typical person within the majority is an ignoramus (since only someone who didn’t know that etiquette can vary by race would make such an assumption); yet ignoramuses are just as common in minority groups.  Incidentally, there are many things which humans have in common irrespective of race, such as the disgust response, which naturally inform certain codes of etiquette i.e. it would be wrong to imagine that etiquette is automatically going to differ across race.

    Your assertion that the statement "X knows more than Y” is proved by "X knows Q and Y doesn’t know Q" is more chop logic.  What if X’s knowledge = 20, Y’s knowledge = 10, and Q = 5?

    You say that your syllogism of “X knows Q and Y doesn’t know Q then X knows more than Y" was perfectly right – but this is ONLY if 1) before Q is taken into consideration, the sum total of what one knows is the same as the sum total of what the other knows; and 2) the statement ‘X knows Q and Y doesn’t know Q’ is factually correct – which it isn’t.
     
    The fact is, in any given situation the sum total of an individual’s knowledge of the culture of another is always unknowable.  Some blacks don’t care about etiquette despite knowing that it’s rude to put one’s feet on the dashboard.  Then, not all blacks do know that it’s rude to do this.  Then, some whites do know that blacks think it’s rude to put one’s feet on the dashboard; and so on.  You made a sweeping deduction based on a sweeping statement and attempted to pass it off as logic, dropping in ‘QED’ for added affect – a conceit commonly used by people with intellectual pretensions. 
     
    You say that you’d stand behind the statement: "People in a minority culture are better-positioned to have insights about majority culture than the people from the majority culture are likely to have insights about the minority culture.  In that sense, and to that extent, the minority people have ‘more’ perspective” – but it is wholly wrong.  The concept of ‘more perspective’ is the problem.  Would you agree that generally each cultural group knows most about its own culture?  If so then what we really have is:
    People in a minority culture know most about minority culture (let’s call this knowledge ‘of black’) and know ‘something’ of the majority culture while
    people in a majority culture know most about majority culture ‘of white’ and know ‘something’ of the minority culture.  Now according to the first sentence of the above statement, the ‘something’ that the minority knows is ‘more’ than the ‘something’ the majority knows.  This is as far as your statement went but it’s not enough.  To determine who has the most perspective one mustn’t overlook that the ‘of White’ knowledge of people of the majority culture is more than the ‘of black’ knowledge of people of the minority culture i.e. because it’s more widespread there will be more regional variations and communication across regional boundaries will spread the knowledge of these.   Then we must put some values to what is known; without a common quantifier it’s impossible to measure one thing against another.  This figure must cover the number of items of knowledge known within the culture, the depth quotient of each of these, the area over which the culture extends, and some figure to cover the relationship of these numbers per capita in the group.  Now, if we were to make ‘of white’ = 50 and ‘of black’ = 25 (a lesser figure than ‘of white’ for the reason explained above) and the majority group’s ‘something’ = 25 and the minority group’s ‘something’ = 50 (a greater figure than the majority group’s ‘something’ as explained above), then the total ‘perspective score’ for each group would be: Majority 75, Minority 75.  Showing that, despite the superficially obvious differences between the groups it would be quite possible to get the result that neither has ‘more perspective’ of cultures than the other.  Of course, the actual ‘perspective winner’ would be the measure of the difference between the two ‘something’ values compared against the difference between ‘of white’ and ‘of black’.

    The point of this being to show that the way you ‘deduced’ that minority groups would notice more and know more than majority groups was missing two major steps (and so was always going to be wrong) and that it is, in fact, completely impossible to accurately deduce anything of the kind since you have no figures at all.

     

    Sotomayor’s argument is complete drivel marked by a streak of prejudice so wide it could be seen from space.  Either you genuinely can’t appreciate the racism in her statement, the rhetorical devices she uses which reveal her prejudices and seek to ingratiate herself to the audience, and her errors of reasoning (and you obviously like to present yourself as being a logician) or you have a false agenda for supporting her.  Either way, you’re a phoney.  Your own evidently skilful use of language makes the failure to recognise Sotomayor for what she really is, unlikely.  Your website presents you as being exceptionally insightful so (unless it is a great deceit) you have no excuse to fail on the grounds of intellect.  Thus I must conclude that you are wilfully defending Sotomayor despite her errors (and her own admission of guilt).  Now this could be perceived as being for noble reasons e.g. to redress discrimination on the grounds of gender and race but to do this irrespective of the truth tacitly condones the use of deceit.  This is anything but noble.

    It is my view that you have sought to defend Sotomayor with one object in mind: personal financial gain.  Your product is an exploitation of the ‘political correctness’ brigade.  By singing very loudly from their hymn book you attract members of this movement and they buy your books.  Other businessmen have recognised the seductive selling power of political correctness.  Offer people a flag to wave that assures them, and tells others that they are the ‘right minded’ ones, and many will buy it.  In writing this article, you have explicitly positioned yourself as cleverer and more insightful than all those who condemned Sotomayor, and this serves to consolidate the image of yourself that you have presented via your business: a champion of truth and justice.

    Were you really such a noble figure I’d applaud and support you but your methods are, to me, transparent.  Although I highly doubt you’ll post this message, I hope other readers will come to see what I see by reading it.  I would draw particular attention to this: “That, sir, is simply not true.”  This is a sham of a sort of old-world chivalry which connotes a bygone era of righteousness that most people have lost but which you retain, the implication being that you are superior, and therefore (to those readers here who might be confused by my challenge to you) more likely to be right.  The same principle of deceit lies behind your warm welcome which is immediately belied by the thoroughly modern phrase, “I’m not buying it” which stands in stark contrast to the old-world chivalrous tone you later use.

    You do this because you desire to be seen to ‘win’ this argument with me; an argument that I caused by challenging your article because I recognise that through it you are seeking to posit yourself as superior at recognising the truth than all those who criticised Sotomayor.  Were you right I wouldn’t have joined the debate but when you’re wrong and apparently convincing others that you’re right, I felt obliged to step in.

    I would also recommend a closer look at this:  “I gave that example, QED the statement was true.”  QED means ‘quod erat demonstrandum’ which, translated, means, ‘which was to be proved’.  So what you’ve written is: ‘I gave that example, which was to be proved the statement is true.’  Clearly, ‘The statement is true’ is redundant.

    Of course you can claim that you accidentally missed out a comma after ‘proved’ (which would – just – allow you an escape) in an effort to preserve the impression of intellectual brilliance you affect but you cannot deny your gratuitous and pretentious use of Latin in the first place.

    Thank you for your time.

    John Rooksby.

    Reply
  9. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    John,

    I don’t know why you would assume I wouldn’t post your comment; this blog, after all, uses an open-posting policy.  You hit enter, it goes up.  I could pull it down, but I try to never do that unless in cases of spam or severe abuse.  You have yet to commit those sins.

    Let’s get back to simple basics here.  I said minority populations have–on the whole and on the average–more insight into majority p0pulations than the reverse.  I gave one example. 

    I still think it’s a good example.  In my personal experience, not one white person to whom I showed the example "got" the answer I suggested black people generally give. 

    In your personal experience, all white people to whom you showed the example "got" the answer I suggested black people generally give. 

    Clearly your white people are different from my white people.

    Let’s hear from other people.

     

     

     

    Reply
  10. al
    al says:

    yes, but…..        I grew up in the same neighborhood as Justice Sotomayer, at the same time.    Latinos weren’t a minority where she grew up!!!!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.