The Badge of Ethnic Identity

Published on June 9th, 2009

Sotomayor’s nomination and America’s divide

By Mark Cromer

It is a tale that speaks of two Americas.

Among the progressive left, Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s life narrative is a compelling story of a woman who overcame daunting odds to achieve the success she has earned in her career as an attorney and a jurist.

To the orthodox liberal, Sotomayor is Exhibit A of the results their “protected classes” of people can produce when shielded from what they see as the inherent oppression of the white superstructure that they believe unfairly dominates America. As a “woman of color,” Sotomayor doubles down on their endangered list.

On the right, Sotomayor’s penchant for analyzing and articulating her worldview through an ethnocentric prism is smoldering evidence that she is a stealth-bigot that cloaks her racism in politically correct euphemisms.

To party line conservatives, Sotomayor’s lecture at UC Berkeley in 2001, aptly entitled ‘A Latina Judge’s Voice,’ plays like security camera footage: ready-made for introduction at her trial, er, Senate nomination hearings.

But the reality that Sotomayor represents is far more nuanced than ideologues on either side of the partisan aisle will ever care to admit. She reflects certain truths that each presumes of her, yet she defies others.

In her ‘Latina Judge’ speech, Sotomayor’s offers an ethnically-charged analysis that she has reaffirmed on numerous other occasions, but those comments alone do not make her a racist by any stretch; and efforts by conservatives to paint her as one are misguided at best.

I suspect that most Republicans and some conservative Democrats don’t really believe that Sotomayor actually hates white America, but they can’t pass up the sweet irony in forcing groups that have long championed a militant ethnic nationalism among Latinos to now scramble to defend one of their own from the very charges of racism they routinely dole out against whites.

Comeuppances aside, it’s not helpful.

But if conservatives should step back from playing Quickdraw McGraw with the label-maker; then the left should step up and get honest about the prevalence of Sotomayor’s stridently ethnocentric viewpoints and the danger they represent to our cultural cohesiveness.

Sotomayor cut her philosophical teeth at Princeton and Yale more than 30 years ago, just as the pan-Latino nationalist movement was taking root on university campuses. Nearly four decades later, the movement that preaches the preeminence of ethnic identity is now an entrenched institution on campuses all across the nation—and Sotomayer’s comments reflect the worldview it instills in students.

It is a worldview that demands Latinos maintain a pronounced fidelity to their “Raza” (their race) first and foremost. During a 1996 speech at her alma mater Princeton, Sotomayor described her “lifelong commitment to identifying myself as a Latina.”

Her supporters are content to brush off this comment as a mere extension of her stated love for Puerto Rican cuisine, Spanish love songs and other benign cultural attributes. But that’s being disingenuous, as well as dismissive of Sotomayor herself, as if she were unaware of how she had chosen to frame her words or the impact they would have.

In fact, Sotomayor certainly knew the meaning her words conveyed when she spoke repeatedly of the intrinsic “richness” of being Latina—choosing to directly contrast that with what she sees as the life experience of American white males.

The comparison was neither accidental nor random, but rather a calculated public affirmation of her belief that Latino culture is somehow more “rich” than Anglo culture; and then she extrapolates that supposed inherent cultural richness will lead her to deliver rulings that are more “wise” than a white man’s judgment.

But that’s not the half of it.

Sotomayor has indeed gone much further in her ethnic delineations, gushing about “how wonderful and magical it is to have a Latina soul.”

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the GOP’s ranking member on the Judiciary Committee who will lead the conservatives during the nominating hearings, should ask Sotomayor point-blank how she designates the differences between such glorious “Latina souls” and, well, the rest of us.

Her ethnocentric hierarchy can also be glimpsed back in 1992, when Sotomayor told The New York Times that she felt “the saddest crimes” she experienced as a Manhattan prosecutor were those that Latinos perpetrated on each other, elevating the race of the victims above the nature of the crime.

Again, there’s nothing ambiguous or innocuous about her words.

The real question that Sotomayor’s nomination brings to not only the Senate, but to the nation, is whether America will finally adopt a universal standard for its elected and appointed officials when it comes to the issue of race, ethnicity and public policy?

Or will Latinos such as Sotomayor, who view almost every aspect of life through the hard lens of ethnic identity, continue to get a free pass over their ethnocentrism in an increasingly fractious, multiethnic nation?

If so, it will be the worst of times, now and to come.

Mark Cromer is a senior writing fellow at Californians for Population Stabilization.

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