Posts Tagged ‘Supreme Court’

Sotomayor and Impartiality

July 13, 2009
Black man: 50% impartial.  Latina: 0% impartial.  White man (not pictured): 100% impartial.

Black man: 50% impartial. Latina: 0% impartial. White man (not pictured): 100% impartial.

Sonia Sotomayor begins her confirmation hearings today, and I’m particularly interested in the way that Republicans are framing their critique of her:

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the highest-ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the fairness issue was “the core of the American system” and was central to Republicans’ qualms.

“Every judge must be committed every day to not let their personal politics, their ethnic background, their biases, sympathies influence the nature of their decision-making process,” Mr. Sessions said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

This is bogus, of course.  To begin with, judges are people and personal or political biases are part of the deal.  Putting on a robe isn’t some magical process that removes someones humanity.  And this is acknowledged by everyone already, which is why each side is very careful to pick a judge whose politics and biases match their own.

What’s more interesting is the notion that Sotomayor has a unique inability to be fair or impartial as a woman of color.  Much has been made of her judicial support for affirmative action, which is supposedly evidence of her inability to set aside her personal identity politics when ruling from the bench.  But there were no similar concerns expressed (that I can remember) when Buffalo’s own John Roberts was nominated as Chief Justice back in 2005, despite the fact that Roberts had a long history of opposing affirmative action programs and had worked in the Reagan White House.

This post isn’t to argue the merits of affirmative action.  That’s not the point.  The point is that when a woman of color supports affirmative action, many people assume that she’s being partial, while a white man can oppose affirmative action without any such assumptions.  Why?

Because whiteness and maleness are considered the norm.  Someone who defends the prerogatives of white men — like Roberts — is operating within the recognized boundaries of normalcy, while someone who challenges those prerogatives is seen as partisan.  Yet both are partisan stances, even though only one is recognized as such.  The ability to make “impartial” decisions that just so happen to uphold the privileges of race and gender is one of the hallmarks of the history of racism and sexism in America.