Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination brought identity politics in the U.S. into sharp relief. Beyond being an important event in a historic presidency, it is one clear indication of attitudes about race and gender in the U.S.: it is now OK to define people based on these characteristics.
Obama narrowed the initial pool of potential judges down to four women: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, and U.S. Circuit Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor. All four had broken through as the first woman in a particular position at some point in their lives. This group was demarcated by their expansion of the representation of the Fairer Sex.
Of that pool, Sotomayor stands out by one trait: she is Hispanic. Pundits, analysts and citizens have speculated ever since Obama took oath that he “needed” to point his almighty finger at a Hispanic and make an appointment somewhere, be it his cabinet, administration, or now, the Supreme Court. Such a move would reel in the support of a constituency that is on the fence between religion-driven conservatism and minority rights-driven liberalism.
This does not diminish the capabilities that Sotomayor possesses, nor does it mean Obama made a misguided choice. It is not shocking, nor is it wrong, that gender and race were the deciding factors. What is shocking is that no one is outraged by this motivation. (Besides Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck calling both Sotomayor and Obama reverse racists.)
America once championed the concept of Politically Correct. Politically correct language was neutral, attempting make invisible the demarcations of race and gender. The old story told us that if we could all just forget that we have different skin colors, ethnic backgrounds and reproductive body parts, equality could be achieved. It envisioned society as a huge Melting Pot, boiling us down to one basic element.
Sotomayor’s nomination suggests that we’ve finally realized that this is impossible. We are moving from a race-and-gender-blind society to one that embraces the fact that humans are different from each other, a difference that should be recognized rather than suppressed. Our lives are all shaped by our defining characteristics, which include gender and race, as well as socioeconomic standing, sexual orientation, and even details such as eye and hair color. Each human is the outcome of a slew of factors that can never be escaped. And to attempt to do so is fallacy.
“Post-racial” politics should not require that Obama make his Supreme Court choice with a blindfold on and ear plugs in, somehow “past” or “beyond” racial issues. It should mean that he, and our country, recognizes that by nominating both a woman and a Hispanic to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor will bring a different perspective and open up the judicial dialogue to groups that are underrepresented. He did not just send a message to the Hispanic population of the U.S.; he sent it to the country. Embrace the differences. They make us unique. They make us diverse. And most importantly, they make us. Recognizing that fact, and celebrating it, is no sin.