U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has scolded Americans for being “cowards” and not talking more about race. Now Mr. Holder is getting that “dialogue” with the recent controversy surrounding President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
Most of the furor surrounds statements on race by Judge Sotomayor herself: “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.”
Judge Sotomayor was clear enough. In a broad discussion about sex/race discrimination cases and their history, she said judges’ ethnicity and gender make them better or worse at what they do.
Judge Sotomayor also once complained, “We [Latinos] have only 10 out of 147 active circuit court judges and 30 out of 587 active district court judges. Those numbers are grossly below our proportion of the population.” Aside from Judge Sotomayor’s notion that federal jobs should be parceled out on the basis of race, what exactly does she mean in an America that is intermarrying, integrating and assimilating as never before?
And why were the same people who are holding up Judge Sotomayor’s background as a qualification for the Supreme Court so quick, when George W. Bush was president, to rally to deny Miguel Estrada a court-of-appeals judgeship?
When Judge Sotomayor invokes racial or ethnic exceptionalism - and her supporters privilege her Latina status - we enter a morass in which there is no consistent logic about either who qualifies as a minority deserving of special state consideration or why any one group has claims over another.
Is minority status deserving of government redress defined by some sort of claim of membership in groups that in the past suffered bias inside the United States?
Hardly. The University of California system, for example, not so long ago worried about too many Asians on its campuses. Yet Japanese-Americans were once put in internment camps and Chinese immigrants were denied civil rights. Had Asians lost their aggrieved status because per capita they were doing too well? And does that suggest that race and ethnicity ipso facto are no longer a hindrance to success?
Perhaps the logic of government-mandated diversity instead hinges not just on redressing historical discrimination, but also on considering present-day racial bias.
Again, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Arab-Americans, for example, don’t qualify for affirmative action, but they’re hardly immune to discrimination here in the United States.
In truth, in the 21st-century United States, we don’t know what exactly race is or its exact role in our own success or failure, much less the reasons how and why it should count for special government consideration.
In a radically changing America, which immigrants from Mumbai, Muslim Arab-Americans or destitute newcomers from Croatia will the government reward on the basis of their skin color, poverty, lack of English or religion?
Who will prove to have the greater case for victimhood and government redress - the half-African prep school graduate or the poorer, darker Palestinian daughter of an immigrant 7-Eleven store owner?
Or should we revert to class - giving the child of the single, alcoholic, unemployed father preference over the daughter of an immigrant who built a successful business by working seven days a week?
To be fairest, should we update rules of the Old Confederacy and have racial statisticians examine our DNA to see whether we really are one-sixteenth this or that federally approved race? Sounds crazy, but sometimes that’s where it feels like we’re heading. Just as the government both regulates and runs General Motors Corp., so it decides who is victimized and who is not and then rewards - and, therefore, punishes - on the basis of race.
But again, 21st-century America is intermarried and mixed up. People are complex individuals, not cookie-cutter representations of their supposed tribe. The Balkans, Iraq and Rwanda are not our models.
So, can we imagine Ivy League-educated Judge Sonia Sotomayor simply as a judge, no more, no less? Can the Senate, in its confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor, vote up or down on her written record and expressed philosophy of jurisprudence?
Senators ought to leave it at that - and only that.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.