Racing to judge

The debate over Sonia Sotomayor shows that America is not yet post-racial.

By Tim Murphy

Last November, after the euphoria of Election Day had finally given way to the dull monotony of the transition period, there was one question that seemed to linger on in everyone’s minds: What kind of puppy would the Obama children get? And does the election of a black president mean America is at last post-racial?

Well, okay, that’s two questions, but Obama, clearly cognizant of the raging debates, did his best to tie the two together in his first press conference.

The problem with getting a shelter dog, explained the President-elect, in his characteristic professorial tone, is that “a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me.”

The line was hailed at the time as refreshingly candid, both because the President used the word “mutt” at a press conference, which usually doesn’t happen, and because he managed to discuss the touchy subject of race in a manner that made at least a few people smile.

Traffic permitting, we’ll never have to ask ourselves again just what kind of dog is right for Sasha and Malia. We’ve only had to wait a few more months, however, for the post-racial identity crisis to reemerge.

At the center of the controversy this time is Sonia Sotomayor, the Bronx-born appellate judge whom President Obama tapped last Monday to fill David Souter’s seat on the Supreme Court. The selection of a Latina woman to the bench has led to the natural declaration that race and gender should not matter when picking a Supreme Court justice, nor should they influence the thinking of such a justice. Merit, and merit alone, should be the deciding factor.

Such is the ideal, but the fallout from Sotomayor’s selection suggests that even if she had been chosen entirely on merit—and given her impeccable qualifications, that might as well have been the case—the response from her critics would have been the same. In the process, Sotomayor’s most controversial assertion has been validated—that being a Latina woman is an inescapable part of her own identity and professionalism.

Writing on the National Review’s group blog, for example, Mark Krikorian took Sotomayor to task for having the gall to insist on pronouncing her name as her family does, with the accent on the final syllable. “There are basically two options—the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him,” Krikorian argued, calling it a question of assimilation. He stopped short of declaring, “This is America—speak English!” but only just barely.

Not to be outdone, The Hill published a report last week relaying the concerns of one conservative activist, who feared that Sotomayor’s affinity for home cooking might in some way blur her decision-making.

According to the paper, the appointee’s dietary preferences have “prompted some Republicans to muse privately about whether Sotomayor is suggesting that distinctive Puerto Rican cuisine…would somehow, in some small way influence her verdicts from the bench.”

Don’t even get them started on West Side Story.

And the Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb, formerly a top aide for Senator John McCain, was flabbergasted by the soaring career arc of a Latina woman from the Bronx, wondering openly on his blog, “Does anyone dispute that Sotomayor has been the recipient of preferential treatment for most of her life?”

Krikorian and Goldfarb are both in the minority, even within their own party. But their views are telling: If this is how mainstream conservatives react publicly to the appointment of an accomplished federal judge to the Supreme Court, then we’re miles away from the point where race and gender don’t matter. If there is one lesson from Sotomayor’s appointment, it’s that the more her critics declare that race and gender should not be relevant, the more relevant those two facts seem to become.

When she can pronounce her last name like her family does and talk about home-cooked meals without being deemed un-American; when she can graduate second in her class at Princeton and rise through the ranks without prominent opponents dismissing it as “affirmative action” and “privilege;” and when a critic can formulate a counter-argument without playing to bankrupt stereotypes about emotionally unhinged, intellectually deficient Latina women (a common retort over the last week), then, perhaps, Sotomayor’s race and gender will be irrelevant.

But until then, I think we have an answer to that nagging post-racial question.

Tim Murphy is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board.