The Blindness of Color Blindness

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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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.
--U.S. Supreme Court nominee, judge Sonia Sotomayor
Let me begin by saying that I disagree with the statement above. For example, it is possible for black person to have seen the poverty and discrimination experienced by blacks in the Jim Crow South and still become a “Clarence Thomas.” The best example of this is, of course, Clarence Thomas. The sad fact is that it is not uncommon to find people of color who are callous or exploitative to other people of color. There is no guarantee that a Latina woman Supreme Court judge would not be another “Clarence Thomas.”

Having said that, the attack on Sotomayor for making the above statement is ridiculous and outrageous. It is terrible that her long career is being reduced to one poorly-chosen sentence.

Ironically, the criticism of the Sotomayor sentence tends to make the sentence seem more valid than it is. The critics, unfortunately, most prominently white males, clearly don’t get it, when probably majorities among groups of color do.

Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Editon (May 30th) raised the question of whether a white man could say that a white man would be a better judge than a Latina woman and not be considered a racist. The logic behind this question has been the starting point of the criticism of Sotomayor. And this logic ignores all the sociological and historical facts. It assumes that we live in a world where white men and Latina women have equal opportunities for success and have always had it.

Christopher Metzler reports, “There have been 110 Supreme Court Justices, and of those only four have been other than White men.” There has never been a Latina Supreme Court Justice.

More generally, in 2007, the unemployment rate for Hispanic women was 1.5 times the rate for white men. Also that year, the median income for white men with a bachelor’s degree and no higher degree was $67,000. For Hispanic women with a bachelor’s degree it was $41,000. The white poverty rate was 8.2 percent in 2007; it was 21.5 percent for Hispanics that same year. These disparities did not just appear in 2007. They have been among the persistent racial disparities in American society.

Against the history where there has never been a Latina on the Supreme Court and where Hispanics generally experience discrimination and disadvantages, it should be understandable that an individual like Sotomayor might push strongly for greater inclusion of Latinas.

It is this current and historical advantage for white males and disadvantage for Latinas that make the similar statements by a white male and a Latina very different. A white male who claims that white men make better Supreme Court judges than Latinas when the Court has never had a Latina is arguing for the continued exclusion and marginalization of Latinas. A Latina making a similar sounding argument is making an argument to promote inclusion and opportunity. Only the colorblind fail to see this.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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