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Ivy Ken, Published June 14 2009

‘Racism’ versus wisdom

In the movie “Zoolander,” which is a send-up of the male modeling industry, the model Derek Zoolander gets a great deal of attention for the variety of “looks” he is able to don: the Blue Steel look, for instance, along with the Ferrari, and Le Tigra. But his detractor, another model named Mugatu, is not impressed. “They’re the same face!” Mugatu says. “Doesn’t anybody notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

Like Mugatu, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills right now. I continue to hear and read criticism of Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor surrounding her now infamous comment: “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.”

“She’s racist,” Newt Gingrich says, although he has now tempered his characterization to “racialist,” whatever that means. Gingrich’s sentiment has a lot of support. If a white man had said the equivalent about his decision-making power, the argument goes, scandal would ensue. A person simply cannot say that her or his race, ethnicity, or gender matter – especially if that person is being called upon to make fair decisions about the most important legal matters of our time.

But what this ongoing criticism of Sotomayor’s statement ignores is that people already believe that white men have superior decision-making abilities. It does not have to be stated. It is apparent in white men’s long-dominant representation on the Supreme Court, the office of the presidency, and the House and Senate. We tend to elect and appoint white men, and in part this is because we presume that white men have the wisdom to make good decisions.

They often do. White men have acquired a great deal of knowledge and experience over the hundreds of years they have been allowed to attend college, given a leg up in hiring decisions, and granted business and home loans that have been denied to Latinas, blacks and other groups. Members of these other groups have had to fight to gain entry into the prestigious realms that have been dominated by elite white men. And in so fighting, they have gained unique perspectives.

Women of color have been making this argument for more than 100 years. Simply put, being marginalized can create unique perspectives. For instance, when Sotomayor fell and injured her ankle last week, the message boards for a major newspaper included comments like this from readers of the story: “Sotomayor was running for the bathroom after eating a burrito (sic)!” “Just when I thought she couldn’t get any uglier.” And this non sequitur, “Mexicans can have babies when they are 100 years old. That’s why they have 5 times more people than they can feed in Mexico ... LET’S FIESTA!”

Sotomayor’s perspective is important, and it is colored by race, ethnicity and gender, just as all white male justices’ perspectives are. As the famed educator Anna Julia Cooper pointed out in 1892, we would be a better and more cohesive society if we made space for all of these perspectives rather than letting our discussions be dominated by those who have shared their own particular set of privileged experiences.

The distinctive way Sotomayor has had to negotiate the opportunities available to her makes her perspective very valuable. Anybody who is concerned about the strength and integrity of our nation should understand that a variety of perspectives, borne of different ways of experiencing the world, must be considered in the highest judicial branch of our government.

Ken, Ph.D., is associate professor of sociology, George Washington University. She grew up in St. Thomas, N.D., and is a graduate of Oak Grove Lutheran High School and Concordia College.