Next July 13, congressional hearings will by held by the Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy D-VT to examine the credentials of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a candidate to sit in the bench of the nation’s highest court. The extreme right wing of the Republican Party began with such strong negative rhetoric about the first Latina woman to be nominated for this position that many wondered if the hearings could become a very conflictive process. While the tone of the rhetoric has been softened, it remains to be seen if the Republican Party will continue laying out the foundation that could lead it to become an irrelevant participant in the nation’s political process. Its extreme, rigid positions on immigration and affirmative action have distanced Lincoln’s party from the rising political actors in the United States’ political landscape. But the nomination of Judge Sotomayor has also revealed the complexity of the “Latino community” and the need to understand this cluster of national origin groups on its own terms and not in terms of the racialization processes that have created a homogenized understanding of a very differentiated group.
The Imagined Latino Community
The media that focuses on the Latino communities in the United States has contributed to a pervasive misperception that exists about who Mexicans, Puerto Rican, Cubans, Salvadorians and other groups of Latin American descent are in the larger context of United States society. While the Anglo media has always perpetuated stereotypes about “latinos,” the “latino” media, in order to expand its markets beyond the ethnic niches of the various Latin-American origin groups, has also contributed to the idea that all Latin-American origin groups are alike. While there are many similarities among these groups there are also significant differences that are revealed in the discourse about the selection of a second generation Puerto Rican to be the first “latina” in the Supreme Court.
It is ironic that this process of racialization (erasure of the cultural and historical differences between ethnic groups) that has created a “Latino” pseudo-racial group is occurring at a time when a color-blind ideology is dominant in political, legal and pedagogical discourse in the United States. Although race is still the essential pivot around which American society is constructed and its hierarchies developed, the courts, politicians and the educational system are negating the role of race and racism in the inequalities that persist in our society. This ideology is so prevalent that it has become common sense and unexamined and is dominating our most important institutions. In the educational system, for example, Janet Schoefield, in study done in a school in 2001, revealed that white students did not know Martin Luther King was an African American. The courts have narrowed the use of race in redressing racial inequalities and politicians do not dare utter the word racism in the public sphere. Most recently, section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, while not overturned, was interpreted in a narrower, individualistic way opening the door to another possible examination by the Supreme Court in the future. Judge Sotomayor, will likely have, if approved, a crucial role in that future decision.
The recent election of President Barack Obama has led many to talk about a “post-racial” United States. Yet, the same inequalities exist, the same hate crimes exist and children of the various Latin American heritages continue attending substandard and underfinanced schools. Recently, evidence suggests we may be at the dawn of a new “post-racial” “Latino” politics emerging across the nation. Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa has increasingly distanced himself from appearing too ethnic, the California 32nd congressional district, until recently represented by progressive Hilda Solis — a majority “Latino” district — will no longer be represented by a politician of Latin American origin and in San Antonio Julian Castro became mayor following a similar strategy to broaden his appeal. In some sense, could it be that Peter Skerry, who wrote Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority might be right? Are “Latinos” just another temporarily racialized group on its way to becoming mainstreamed (which in the U.S. means white)?
However, the cacophony of strongly negative comments about Judge Sotomayor made by the Republican Party’s right wing, especially Tom Tancredo, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich reveals the power of race and racism in contemporary America. Judge Sotomayor’s mistake, in their view, is that she affirmed her social experience as a “Latina” woman and how it provides her a rich perspective to add to the various other world views that abound in mainstream legal discourse. In a culture where the “color-blind” ideology is dominant any enunciation of ethnicity or race is taboo. However, the reality is that Judge Sotomayor is not too far from mainstream legal thought.
Their stance also might place the party in a more difficult place as it tries to recruit among the emerging actors in the political arena. The Republican Party is increasingly becoming whiter and ideologically extreme. In terms of Latin-American voters, it only received 31 percent of the “latino” vote in 2008, down from 40 percent in 2004. Since, today, 22 percent of all American less than 18 years of age are “latinos” the future of the party seems tenuous at best.
President Obama, in announcing Judge Sotomayor’s nomination for a seat in the Supreme Court, mentioned a case that involved the baseball major leagues in 1995. Dave Zirin’s article in The Nation (“Sotomayor is a Sporting Judge,” May 29, 2009) argued that Judge Sotomayor “saved” the capitalist owners of the baseball franchises from themselves. She basically saved them from their own short sightedness and greed. In fact, her decision to squash the bosses’ lockout helped baseball grow from a business that produced $1.3 billion to one that produces $7.5 billion.
A recent analysis of her judicial decisions by the McClatchy news agency revealed that Judge Sotomayor has been in the Court of Appeals since January 2002. Since that time, in criminal cases she has decided 65 of 90 instances in favor of the government. In 450 cases she presided over, she was only revised in six cases; none of them were criminal cases.
What is not clear is her position on abortion. None of the cases she has been involved in have had anything to do with an interpretation of Roe v. Wade (1973) and in other cases tangentially related her decisions were diverse. Right wing conservatives like Rush Limbaugh are hoping that her Catholic background will determine her position on abortion. Five of the judges are Catholic and only Anthony Kennedy strayed away from an anti-abortion stance in 1992 when he supported the right of a woman to an abortion. It is ironic that those who critique Judge Sotomayor for being honest about her background and experience as a Puerto Rican woman now place their hope on that background for a particular interpretation of the law.
However, it is revealing that this dialogue, which pivots around this “latina” woman, is contradictorily being used to both reproduce the fiction of a “Latino community” and on the other hand to extol the culture of meritocracy that permeates American culture. “Latino” is a category that is still empty of content although it might truly become a social reality in the future as diverse Latin-American origin communities intermarry and begin to develop a hybrid “latino” culture and identity. But in the meantime, the real ethnic groupings are the Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and other communities with their unique historical experiences and cultures. A recent survey (June 4) by Quinnipiac University indicated that 49 percent of whites and 66 percent of Jewish Americans support Judge Sotomayor for the court. Close to 85 percent of African Americans contrasted with 58 percent of “latino” showed support for Judge Sotomayor’s selection. Some have argued that a large number of conservative Cubans may have biased the survey.
In another survey by McClatchy news (May 28-June 8), which had a larger sample than the Quinnipiac University survey, “latino” support for Judge Sotomayor is 72 percent. If the media continues to emphasize her “immigrant” working class background it may continue to elicit the support of Latin-American communities. But ironically, the way this message has been communicated presents her story as a “rags to riches” epic without any social context that helps make sense of her achievement. It is important to acknowledge her efforts and at the same time nuance the individualistic message that is being used to explain her success. Her mother, Celina Sotomayor, an important figure in her life, led her to appreciate Puerto Rican culture, which nurtured a sense of place and significance in a society that was not always hospitable to differences. Also, it is important to acknowledge that she grew up in a New York where the struggles of the Puerto Rican and the Black community opened doors to Latin Americans to new opportunities. Organizations like the Young Lords, ASPIRA and others forced the powers that be to provide access to education, health care and housing. This fertile context of social struggles is the stage that catapulted the intelligence and determination of this Puerto Rican woman into the public sphere.
Her achievements, rightly so, belong to her and to those on whose shoulder many of us have been carried into the present.