A Philosopher's Blog

Sotomayor & Reverse Racism

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2009

Rush Limbaugh has accused Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor of being a reverse racist. He bases his claim primarily on a quote from speech she gave in 2001 at Berkeley. She said that a “wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

While I generally consider Rush to be a reliable indicator of the false, he does raise a legitimate concern here. After all, imagine if a white male nominated by Bush had said “a wise white man with the richness of his experience would more often that not reach a better conclusion than a Latina women who hasn’t lived that life.” That would have certainly created something of a frenzy on the left-just as Sotomayor’s remark is stirring up the more right wing folks.

Of course, I do take issue with Rush’s use of the term “reverse racism.” The reversal of racism would be, of course, its opposite. What people like Rush seem to mean by the term is racism by non-whites against whites. However, that is not reverse racism, but simply racism. Interestingly, the term “reverse racism” seems to be most often used by folks on the right, almost as if racism is something that is supposed to go from white to non-white rather than from non-white to white. So, I’ll just use the terms “racism” and “racist” without the term “reverse.”

While the quote needs to taken in its proper context, it is still well worth examining on its own. I have no dispute or worry about two aspects of her claim. First, she puts an emphasis on being wise. Second, she makes a point of the richness of life experience. It is reasonable to accept that a wise person with rich experience would tend to make better conclusions that someone lacking those traits.

However, she brings in both gender and race. Now, I’d grant that a wise Latina women with rich experience would tend to reach better conclusions than an unwise, inexperienced white man. But this is not because of the race or gender differences. Rather, it is because of (as noted above) the differences in wisdom and experience.

It is in the reference to gender and race that the racism and sexism seem to come into play. After all, she can be seen as indicating that a Latina woman would reach better conclusions than a white man because she is a a Latina and a woman. She does, of course, say “a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” But does she mean a white male who lacks experience or a white male who has not lived the live of a Latina woman? if she means the former, then this would not seem to be a racist remark but a simple truism: more experienced people tend to reach better conclusions. If she means the latter,then that might be taken as racist.

Perhaps Sotomayor’s remark is intended to reply to the racist view that a white man would reach better conclusions than even a wise and experienced Latina woman simply because he is a white man. If so, then her remark need not be racist.

In any case, she will need to defuse this remark. Given that the Democrats control Congress, she should have no problems.

Continuing the discussion, I did see a piece on CNN in which Roland Martin went after Rush’s remarks. While I agree with his general view of Rush, Martin’s main attacks were just fallacies, specifically ad hominems. He attacked Rush for his own racist remarks and also took a shot at Rush’s past drug abuse. While these claims are true, they are not relevant to the truth of Rush’s claim. Of course, being logical is not really an effective approach for a political pundit/commentator either on the left or the right.

Finally, Rush also accused Obama of being a racist. While that seems untrue, it is reasonable to consider Rush’s claim that Sotomayor is the nominee because she is a Latina woman. To select someone because of race and gender would certainly seem to be a racist and sexist action. Of course, racism and sexism are normally taken to occur when it is a white male being selected based on race and gender. But, it is using race and gender as deciding factors that make it racism-not the specific race or gender.

I think Rush is right in his claim that she is the nominee in part because she is a Latina woman. Of course, Obama’s actual motivation need not be what might be considered standard racism  and sexism. Standard racism and sexism is seeing a race or gender as superior or inferior based on how one thinks or feels about that race and gender.

Obama has also been accused of  picking her so as to pander to voters and also to pay them back. To be specific, Hispanics helped him get elected and some have argued that this means he owes them something. Nominating Sotomayor could thus be a classic case of political pay back and a move calculated to keep and bolster Hispanic and female support for the administration. If Obama picked her for this reason, he need not be racist and sexist at all-he just needs to be a politician. The folks who think that as Hispanics and women they are owed something, well they would seem to be thinking in race and gender terms.

A final thought on the nomination, race and gender. Some folks on the left like to say how they want to get rid of racism and sexism. However, to do so they place a great deal of emphasis on race and gender. For example, some folks push hard to get a person elected or nominated because she is a woman or a minority. But, of course, the more that someone focuses on race and gender, the less likely it is that race and gender will not matter. This might be seen as something of a paradox: to make racism and sexism go away, people have to behave in ways that seem racist and sexist. For example, to make race and sex not matter on the Supreme court, people of diverse races and both sexes have to serve on the bench until it seems perfectly normal for that to happen. Of course, to make this happen, nominees have to be picked, in part, because they are a certain race or gender. This would, of course, seem to be racism and sexism justified by trying to get rid of racism and sexism.

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27 Responses

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  1. Patrick Sperry said, on May 28, 2009 at 10:22 am

    We seem to have reached almost identical conclusions by way of slightly different paths.

    For some reason, I am reminded of the Allegory of the cave though.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on May 28, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Excellent post.

    Here are some comments form Alan Dershowitz that I think are also on target:

    http://amfix.blogs.cnn.com/2009/05/14/dershowitz-court-shouldnt-be-gender-balanced/

    Alan Dershowitz: It’s a superb list. Elena Kagan is my former dean and a friend. I’ve argued cases in front of Judge Sotomayor and I know the others on the list. It’s a very, very good list. My concern is this – the impression is being created, perhaps it’s a false impression, that what President Obama has done is said bring me a list of women, Latinos and I’ll pick from that the most qualified people. That can create a very bad starting point for any justice. They’re not on the court as representatives of a particular gender or ethnicity. They are there because they are supposed to be the greatest legal minds in the country capable of dealing with some of the most complex issues. So I hope he picks the most qualified people. Among the most qualified people, obviously, are very distinguished women and Latinos and Asians and others of diverse backgrounds.

    Kiran Chetry: If you look at the court it is dominated by white men. Is the court supposed to represent the country’s population? And maybe it is or maybe it isn’t, but half of the country is made up of females. Don’t you think it’s in the interest or responsibility of the president to try to bring some gender balance to the court?

    Dershowitz: No. I don’t think balance is the appropriate function of the Supreme Court. If you were looking at who should be represented on the court, there is only one white Protestant on the entire court and this is a country primarily of white Protestants. We don’t want to see the court divided into kind of representative justices the way we have representative congress people and senators. I think that’s the wrong approach to the court. You have a president like Obama who is, clearly, color blind and gender blind. We trust him, I think, to pick the best people. He is not going to be accused of in any way engaging in prejudice. Let him pick the best person. It’s very likely that best person might very well be a woman or a person of Latino background but I think it’s a mistake for him to set out in advance to say I want only a woman, this is a woman’s seat on the court.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 28, 2009 at 4:09 pm

      I saw that exchange on TV and found it quite interesting. While Dershowitz makes a good point about the court, he was mistaken about no one accusing Obama of prejudice.

      • kernunos said, on May 29, 2009 at 8:03 pm

        “I saw that exchange on TV and found it quite interesting. While Dershowitz makes a good point about the court, he was mistaken about no one accusing Obama of prejudice.”

        He probably meant most of the media as it is their job to keep the government on their heels as far as truth, integrity and transparency. I saw mostly puff pieces on a very controversial figure nominated to the Supreme Court. She is a member of La Raza which is a very racist group. What is a white male was nominated and was part of the KKK. She is simply being pushed through because of her ideology and not her ability to interpret the Constitution in a non subjective way. The Constitution does not require empathy. There was plenty in its creation.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 30, 2009 at 12:44 pm

          La Raza is an hispanic group, but does not seem to have the KKKs tendency towards violence. But, race groups are worrisome. As you point out, if a white guy was in an all white group, then he would be seen as a racist. There is an unfortunate double standard for race and gender in this country. I suspect that exclusive minority and women’s groups will be among the last hold outs of racism and sexism-assuming we are ever able to be rid of those things.

  3. James C said, on May 29, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Oh man, this is getting better and better. We have a President answering to the most LEFT group in the country, ACORN. One who also nominates benefactors of campaign contributions to office. Also a man who has never provided a valid birth certificate. Oh and the fact he aids and abets illegals. I could go on and on. We will never agree. But one thing I DO AGREE ON is the fact that RACISM IS OVER… not just racism towards blacks or minorities BUT EVERYONE! Whether you are a democrat, republican, libertarian, independant, who cares?! BOTTOM LINE IS THAT IF A WHITE MAN OR EVEN WHITE WOMAN WERE QUOTED AS SAYING THAT THEY WOULD BE ON A MULTI-CHANNEL APOLOGY FEST!(like IMUS) We cannot allow this woman, who personally I have nothing against and really had no opinion on her until that comment, to become a supreme court judge. Are we crazy?! God Bless America, we really need it right now…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 29, 2009 at 12:18 pm

      I’m quite sure that Obama is an American citizen. The birth certificate thing was just one of those internet rumors that people bought into on the basis of feeling rather than evidence.

      But, you are right to point out the fact that there are different standards regarding racism and sexism. While Imus’ remarks were a bit more crude than Sotomayor’s, both certainly seem to fall within the realm of racism and sexism.

  4. kernunos said, on May 29, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    “I’m quite sure that Obama is an American citizen. The birth certificate thing was just one of those internet rumors that people bought into on the basis of feeling rather than evidence.”

    I am not disputing the evidence but one wonders why there was such a knock down-drag out fight about seeing it. This seems highly unusual. Being president requires being a US citizen. If I apply for a job as a contractor in the government and they ask for proof of citizenship then I show it. By the way, with his past he would have had a hard time passing background checks that I have to. I would be rejected with his past.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 30, 2009 at 12:41 pm

      It was just a political rumor tactic. Start a rumor, get it feeding on itself, and hope that it pays off. Another example is the one the Bush machine used against McCain-that he had an illegitimate black child.

      Why think that he is not an American citizen? If he really was not a citizen, do you think that the folks in the Republican party would just be playing along in some sort of conspiracy?

      • kernunos said, on May 31, 2009 at 10:06 am

        “It was just a political rumor tactic. Start a rumor, get it feeding on itself, and hope that it pays off. Another example is the one the Bush machine used against McCain-that he had an illegitimate black child.”

        You missed my point. If the documentation was easy to provide why wasn’t it done right away? You dodged my question. I would have to for a government job and he is applying for a job to serve the people. You might think he is beholden to them.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 31, 2009 at 7:51 pm

          What is your point? Do you suspect that Obama is up to something? I’m just trying to find out what you are worried about.

          • T. J. Babson said, on May 31, 2009 at 8:03 pm

            No, I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do, however, think that Obama was given pretty much a free pass by the press, and the college transcripts are emblematic of that. I think there is real Chauncey Gardiner aspect to Obama. Obama even wrote: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

            http://www.nysun.com/new-york/obamas-years-at-columbia-are-a-mystery/85015/

            Senator Obama’s life story, from his humble roots, to his rise to Harvard Law School, to his passion as a community organizer in Chicago, has been at the center of his presidential campaign. But one chapter of the tale remains a blank — his education at Columbia College, a place he rarely speaks about and where few people seem to remember him.

            Contributing to the mystery is the fact that nobody knows just how well Mr. Obama, unlike Senator McCain and most other major candidates for the past two elections, performed as a student.

            The Obama campaign has refused to release his college transcript, despite an academic career that led him to Harvard Law School and, later, to a lecturing position at the University of Chicago. The shroud surrounding his experience at Columbia contrasts with that of other major party nominees since 2000, all whom have eventually released information about their college performance or seen it leaked to the public.

            For better or worse, voters have taken an interest in candidates’ grades since 1999, when the New Yorker published President Bush’s transcript at Yale and disclosed that he was a C student. Mr. Bush had never portrayed himself as a brain, but many were surprised to learn the next year that his opponent, Vice President Gore, did not do much better at Harvard despite his intellectual image. When Senator Kerry’s transcript surfaced, reporters found that he actually had a slightly lower average at Yale than Mr. Bush did.

            Some political observers cite such disclosures as proof that candidates’ intelligence cannot be judged solely by their political careers or the schools they attended. Grades provide a rare measure of intellect that is immune to political spin, proponents say.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2009 at 2:32 pm

              I’d agree that many folks in the media (obviously not Rush, Fox and others) took it very easy on Obama. While media folk are also voters, they should have been more restrained in regards to Obama.

              It is odd that they are not releasing the transcripts. As I generally say about politicians who refuse to release information, perhaps they are hiding something that would be more damaging than the suspicion raised by not revealing it.

              However, I’m still not quite clear on the basis of the concern. Is the worry that Obama really failed college and did some tricks to get into law school? Is the worry that he did really poorly and is concealing that he is actually an idiot? Or, is the worry that he took certain classes that would embarrass him?

            • T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2009 at 3:58 pm

              I’d guess it is probably nothing worse than a few bad grades and maybe a lower GPA than we might expect.

              I think is mainly emblematic that the press let him get away with this. I never felt the press did their “due diligence” with Obama in terms of fact checking his autobiography, etc.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2009 at 8:44 pm

              Yes, there are legitimate concerns that some media folks took it too easy on Obama. Some of the more reflective journalists acknowledged this. While they do have the right to like him as a person, they have a similar obligation that I do as a professor: even if I really like a student, I have to assess that person fairly. If I do not, I am not doing my job.

  5. magus71 said, on May 30, 2009 at 7:22 am

    So would I:

    Have you ever used drugs? If so, how many times and what kind?

    Have you ever been associated with or sympathetic to organizations that espouse the overthrow of the US government?

    No job for me if I were Obama. I’d have to settle for being president.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 30, 2009 at 12:45 pm

      No drugs, aside from Gatorade. That’s a drug right?
      I’ve associated with Republicans. Some Republicans have spoken about having their states leave the union, so I would have to say “yes.”

      • kernunos said, on May 31, 2009 at 10:07 am

        Wow, Mike, that was just like Obama with that stretch. Not!

  6. T. J. Babson said, on May 30, 2009 at 9:35 am

    It is curious that Obama has never released his college transcripts.

    Mike, could you get your job without letting your employer see your transcripts?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 30, 2009 at 12:50 pm

      Is their a rumor that he never graduated from college going around? :)

      I had to provide my grad school transcripts as evidence that I have a PhD. However, I don’t think that the presidency has a degree requirement. If it did, then he would have to provide them. If it doesn’t, then we have no more right to see his transcripts than any citizen’s. Just because he is the president doesn’t mean that he has to reveal everything about his life.

      I’m guessing his academic record is fairly good. Then again, maybe he has some secret Muslim, Socialism and Gay Marriage classes on his transcripts that he must hide until he is ready to transform America into a Gay, Socialist, and Islamic state.

      • T. J. Babson said, on May 30, 2009 at 5:51 pm

        I’m frankly curious whether or not he was able to pass calculus :-)

        I guess I just find it strange that you as a professor are allowed to know more about your Ph.D. student than we the people of the U.S. are allowed to know about the most powerful man in the known universe.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 30, 2009 at 6:27 pm

          What don’t we know about him that we knew about previous presidents? He has written two autobiographical books, been followed by the press for a few years, and so on. What secrets remain that must be revealed?

          • T. J. Babson said, on May 30, 2009 at 7:46 pm

            Mike LaBossiere: “What don’t we know about him that we knew about previous presidents?”

            Mike, aren’t you committing here the fallacy of “Appeal to Common Practice.”

            http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/

            Dr. Michael C. Labossiere, the author of a Macintosh tutorial named Fallacy Tutorial Pro 3.0, has kindly agreed to allow the text of his work to appear on the Nizkor site, as a Nizkor Feature. It remains © Copyright 1995 Michael C. Labossiere, with distribution restrictions. :-)

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 31, 2009 at 7:26 pm

              Not at all. I asked a question, the goal of which was to simply find out what it is that we do not know about Obama that we did not know about other presidents. Or, to be direct: what is that we do not know about Obama that we need to know? What information that we have a right to know is being kept from us?

              For me to commit that fallacy, I would have had to write something like this:
              1. We did not know X about past Presidents, so this is a commonly done thing.
              2. Therefore, because it is a common practice, we do not need to know X about Obama.

              If we are holding Obama to standards that were not applied to past presidents, then to apply them to him would be (on the face of it) unfair. To point this out would not be “he should get away with it because it was common” but “he should be held to the same standards as the others, unless there is a relevant difference between him and them.”

              To use an analogy: suppose you go to a store to buy some beer. The six people ahead of you show their IDs and get their beer. You show your ID, but the clerk says “I also need to see your US passport, your automobile insurance card, your high school diploma, your college transcripts, and a letter from your mother.” Now, if you said “that is BS, you just need to see my ID!” that would not be an appeal to common practice, but a request for fair play.

  7. T. J. Babson said, on May 31, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    No, I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do, however, think that Obama was given pretty much a free pass by the press, and the college transcripts are emblematic of that. I think there is real Chauncey Gardiner aspect to Obama. Obama even wrote: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

    http://www.nysun.com/new-york/obamas-years-at-columbia-are-a-mystery/85015/

    Senator Obama’s life story, from his humble roots, to his rise to Harvard Law School, to his passion as a community organizer in Chicago, has been at the center of his presidential campaign. But one chapter of the tale remains a blank — his education at Columbia College, a place he rarely speaks about and where few people seem to remember him.

    Contributing to the mystery is the fact that nobody knows just how well Mr. Obama, unlike Senator McCain and most other major candidates for the past two elections, performed as a student.

    The Obama campaign has refused to release his college transcript, despite an academic career that led him to Harvard Law School and, later, to a lecturing position at the University of Chicago. The shroud surrounding his experience at Columbia contrasts with that of other major party nominees since 2000, all whom have eventually released information about their college performance or seen it leaked to the public.

    For better or worse, voters have taken an interest in candidates’ grades since 1999, when the New Yorker published President Bush’s transcript at Yale and disclosed that he was a C student. Mr. Bush had never portrayed himself as a brain, but many were surprised to learn the next year that his opponent, Vice President Gore, did not do much better at Harvard despite his intellectual image. When Senator Kerry’s transcript surfaced, reporters found that he actually had a slightly lower average at Yale than Mr. Bush did.

    Some political observers cite such disclosures as proof that candidates’ intelligence cannot be judged solely by their political careers or the schools they attended. Grades provide a rare measure of intellect that is immune to political spin, proponents say.

  8. Patrick Sperry said, on June 2, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Here are my problems with this issue, and yes, most have been noted by others in the thread;

    I have to “prove” citizenship at just about every turn. That includes, but is not limited too: Drivers License, Paramedic Certification, F.E.M.A. certification, College Admission for continuing education. Include Security Clearances/Background Checks for most of the above plus Concealed Carry Permit, Mass Casualty Incident Planner/Responder, Instructor for those things, plus a separate clearance for responding to “Domestic Violence Shelters,” and Radiological Emergency Responder/Commander Plus a few things that I’m not even allowed to acknowledge even exist.

    Our Commander in Chief doesn’t have to cough up this much? Back to Kant; it fails the test of logic and ethical reasoning.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2009 at 9:08 pm

      I’m not sure of the legal requirements for the Presidency might be in terms of documentation. Given the Constitution, a person would seem to have to prove two things: age and being a natural American. Beyond that (and, of course, the need to establish the base identity), there seems to be nothing about proving GPA and so on.

      Again, I’m not sure what the worry is. Is there a worry that Obama is concealing some dire secret? Could someone provide a list of things that we must know about Obama that he has failed to provide? What harms do we suffer by not having this information?


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