“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.” These few words, spoken casually by Sonia Sotomayor at the annual Mario G. Olmos Law and Cultural Diversity Lecture at UC-Berkeley in 2001, came back to haunt President Barack Obama’s nominee for the United States Supreme Court during the spring and summer of 2009. Hard to believe that this brief statement could cause such anguish, particularly among the conservative white senators who form part of the Senate Judiciary Committee, yet they led to days of arrogant grilling by the Senators and weeks of newspaper articles and commentary by television pundits speculating on what Sotomayor meant, whether it would hurt her confirmation, and what it would signal for the new court.
As a Latina (yes, I try to be wise too), and specifically, a Puerto Rican, as well as a namesake of our newest Supreme Court Justice who is also Puerto Rican, I was tremendously proud when President Obama nominated her. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, my story is not very dissimilar from hers, although of course she has reached professional heights that few have. But I connected with her story because it is the story of so many Puerto Ricans, particularly of our early experiences. Many of us lived in some degree of poverty, went to run-down schools, and had dreams of overcoming the hand that we had been dealt. Many of us experienced the surprise, if not incredulity, on the part of our teachers and professors that we were smart, and had a handful of teachers who truly believed that we were. Many of us had parents who believed fiercely in the “American Dream” and worked endless hours every day to achieve it for us, if not for them. Many of us, in a word, have “lived that life,” a life that has informed our worldview, our decisions and our moral judgments. How could it be otherwise?
Yet for some politicians and pundits, Sotomayor’s comments incurred outrage. They carried on for weeks about how her comments were ethnocentric and even racist. It seems that some people simply could not conceive that one’s background should have an effect on one’s life, decisions, and values – which brings up the question: Do politicians make decisions without the benefit of their life experience? Do their backgrounds carry no weight whatsoever in their judgments? It’s hard to believe that only this particular sub-class of individuals, Republican senators, are always completely impartial, that their lives, often of privilege and comfort, have no impact on their work as senators. Likewise, it is implausible that white male Supreme Court justices, in deciding cases that would have a direct impact on women and people of color, were not in the least influenced by their lives as non-people-of-color and non-women. In making judicial decisions about desegregation, affirmative action, women’s reproductive rights and other sensitive issues, it is equally improbable that the Supreme Court justices’ lack of experience with these matters would not enter into their deliberations. Are white males the only people on earth who have no preconceived ideas and, yes, even biases? This is what is most difficult to believe.
No one should use their life experience as the only criterion for decision-making, and this is where wisdom comes in. Wisdom is certainly something to strive for, and wisdom comes not only from books but also from life experiences. From everything I have seen and heard, Justice Sotomayor has made an effort to combine both of these in her deliberations and decision-making. She also made it clear, both before and during her confirmation hearings, that in spite of her upbringing and life experiences, she aspires to impartiality and fairness. This is as it should be, and at least she was more honest than some of her judicial counterparts in articulating that it is often a struggle.
As schools open this month, I hope that teachers take the opportunity to begin a conversation about the Sotomayor confirmation and hearings, and that they invite their students to share their thoughts and feelings about this momentous event. I hope too that teachers frame this conversation as part of the larger American story of struggle and achievement on the part of the dispossessed. It is a noble story, one that is not yet over. And that is why it is important, and necessary, that we now have a wise Latina on the Supreme Court.
Sonia Nieto is a noted education scholar and co-chair of Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching Diverse Students Initiative (TDSi) Advisory Committee.