Decoding the Sonia S. Hearings
Professor of Politics
July 19, 2009
Author of the forthcoming: The Audacity of Races and Genders, A personal and global
story of the Obama Election, Zed Press, and Palgrave, 2009. See: http://www.ithaca.edu/zillah
for a listing of her many books and political activism.
The confirmation hearings of Sonia S. were orchestrated as political
gamesmanship. Everyone watching was expected to accept the evasive and coded
language. Senators of the judiciary committee kept speaking as though race is Black or
Brown or Latina, but never white. They challenged Sotomayor on her views about race
and most often kept her gender, all together irrelevant and silent. Maybe the issue of
gender is too tied to whiteness for them; as though gender is about white women, and
therefore had no “standing” in this instance.
The Senate judiciary hearings were not really meant to be about Sonia Sotomayor
the person, or the judge. As a consequence the proceedings revealed more about how
some white men remain racially ignorant and arrogant than about what Sonia S. thinks
about the major issues of these times. These Senators assume their privileged site of
(white) power is “objective”, rational, and not empathetically compromised. They
posture and presume that law demands rationality and fairness and that means that a
“Latina woman” is compromised if she embraces this heritage and identity. Sonia S. is
asked to promise to act like white men, supposedly act. And, Sonia S. quietly gave a
nod in this direction.
I loved the controversial statement by Sotomayor: that a “Latina woman” will
make better decisions, have more nuanced and complex consciousness, than a white man.
Similar to most “rational” people, I knew she probably did not mean “better”, but rather a
more “complex” more “inclusive” vision. She repeatedly said that she did not mean that
this “Latina-woman’s” stance was automatic, or inherent, but was a probability. I
thought it was great that she had said all this. Yet, these white men would not let such a
I was disappointed to hear Sonia S. backtrack from this important position and
apologize for her words in the last day of the hearings. She said she did not mean what
people were saying she meant. She said she meant to insult no one by her words, and
apologized for doing so. She said that her phrasing was “rhetorical flourish” that she now
regrets. She said that she had used these words while addressing girls and women, many
of whom were Latina, to inspire them.
I wish Sonia S. had tried to inspire the rest of the country and stood by her
statement and then explained her meaning more fully. I wish she had braved the moment
and clarified her thinking about power and its relationship to knowledge. I wish she had
said that from the site of power, one sees less because most powerful people do not look to see from other vantages than their own. In contrast, less powerful people have to look
beyond themselves because they must know what those more powerful than them
expect/demand from them.
One must look from more vantage points the less power one has, because success
and/or survival depend on this. One must know what the people with more power want so
one can try to do what is expected. There is a connection between power and knowledge:
the less power you have, the more knowledge you must discover and use. So a “Latina
woman” is usually ahead of the white man when it comes to seeing and understanding a
set of “facts”. She has had to learn how to see and know more to just get by, or to
The Senate hearings were a disappointment and troubling and not just because we
did not learn enough about Sonia S.’s legal thought. They were troubling because they
authorized a discourse of white male racial privilege in code: rationality and objectivity
must be chosen over empathy and compassion, which are too womanly, and not
lawyerlike enough. White racial and male privilege parade alongside each other here.
Sonia S.’s statement about a “Latina woman” does not deny the importance of
neutrality and objectivity but rather makes clear that neither are achievable without first
recognizing how individual experience and identity are present. If one is to achieve
justice one first must expose her own biases. Silenced identities that are hidden are the
ones that are dangerous; revealed and spoken identities can be held accountable.
Supposedly, in order to be considered worthy of the Court one must represent the
mainstream, which is code for status quo. But justices should not be of the mainstream.
They instead should be constantly examining and critiquing, especially that which is
understood as established and acceptable. This is not judicial activism, or radicalism, or
prejudice, but rather intellectual and ethical curiosity. And all kinds of people, from
outside the racial, gender, class, mainstream, are needed.
Sonia S. was said to be racist; while white men are assumed to be neutral. Before
the hearings right wing talk show hosts called her a bigot and racist. According to Rush
Limbaugh Sonia S. hates white men. Look at what she did to the white New Haven
firefighters? She judged that a test they took was unfair to Blacks and therefore an
inappropriate part of the vetting process.
Sonia S. will inevitably be confirmed as the next justice to the Supreme Court. It
would be so much more pleasing that she became the next justice without having to deny
her specific contribution as a Latina woman. This would herald an embrace of a diversity
that does not hide from the richness of our differences, nor silence the gender and racial
privilege that protects an exclusionary mainstream.
Decoding the Sonia S. Hearings