Break out the Goya goods, the Gabriel García Márquez novels, and your exotic Guernica print: it’s Hispanic Heritage Month! Traditionally, it is a time for us to celebrate our rich culture—a colorful cornucopia of sounds and tastes and history—and share it with the world. This time around, our nation has an extraordinary political achievement to celebrate. Months after the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president, the Senate confirmed Federal Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor as our nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. But as I watched the furor over her now-famous 2001 “wise Latina” remark during the confirmation hearings, I couldn’t help but contemplate the sad state of race relations within our political system: Obama and Sonia, one step forward; these God-forsaken hearings, two steps back.
Here is the “seditious” quote (from a 2001 speech at the University of California, Berkeley): “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.”
Here is the quote as viewed by certain Republican senators: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a is better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Now, here is an excerpt from that same 2001 speech, only one paragraph after the inflammatory quote in question:
“I … believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. … Nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown [v. Board of Education]. However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give.”
The argument on the Republican side is that Sotomayor may not be the right person for the job due to what ringleader Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, describes as a “gender, ethnic [and] racial bias,” based on her 2001 remark. The problem with that point of view is that it completely disregards the context from which Sotomayor’s words were taken. She isn’t saying that Hispanic people are better than white people. Clearly, she is arguing for greater understanding within the political system, and that is something that can only come with greater diversity.
Of the 111 Supreme Court Justices, 106 of them have been white men. But that doesn’t paint an accurate picture of our nation’s actual ethnic makeup. We are living in a far more colorful era. According to Ross Douthat’s July 19 column on race in The New York Times: “By 2023 … nonwhites—black, Hispanic and Asian—will constitute a majority of Americans under 18. By 2042, they’ll constitute a national majority.” The nation’s largest states, Texas and California, already have “minority” majorities. (Are you sure you’re ready to upset most of your constituents, Mr. Cornyn, by not voting for a Hispanic justice?)
Sotomayor’s challenge is underscored by these words, from Gabriel García Márquez: “The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good; and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burdens of the past.” Sotomayor is arguing for true understanding from all races, calling for a greater diversity of experience in government within this changing racial climate. She is saying that we have done a stellar job in the past, but this is a new era, and we can dare to do better. It may be upsetting to some in the established white male power structure, but the face of America is changing. The Supreme Court should reflect the diverse makeup of our population so that it is more representative of the many different points of view of the nation. It is time for all of us—white, black, Asian, Hispanic—to forge ahead together. So let’s actually make this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month less about margaritas and guacamole and more about the challenge of true understanding. Let us be willing to grant our time. Let us be willing to afford our best effort. Let us start with the heart.