Quite soon, likely this week, Sonia Sotomayor will arrive on Capitol Hill, where she will be greeted by a gaggle of lawmakers. With some exceptions, nearly all of them will be white. Most will be men.
It must be said: These guys are doomed. Picture it for one solemn moment. All of these dark-suited white male politicians, with their crisp shirts and red coordinated ties, will be embarrassingly lacking the key critical appendage required in American politics today. Through elections and re-elections, grueling fundraising dinners and various travails required for elevation to the highest offices in the land, they thought they had it all! And until now, darn it, they did. They had what was needed to make it in America.
Here’s the good news for those doomed identity-less white guys. You actually do have an identity! You are in fact a minority in America. Embrace your status, file a brief, find your own voice.
But now, it’s not enough. These politicians are missing…an identity. As in “identity politics.”
OK, so here’s the issue, or so it seems based on the fevered response to a few sentences from Judge Sotomayor: If you happen to be a 54-year-old Hispanic woman from the Bronx, and if you happened to notice, somehow, that you are a 54-year-old Hispanic woman from the Bronx…and then if you imply, let’s say in an address to an academic audience, “Hey! I’m thinking I’m a 54-year-old Hispanic woman from the Bronx and that’s going to have something to do with how I look at the world…and oh, by the way, I’m thinking that may even give me a better perspective on the tapestry of global human experience than a rich white guy from Greenwich, Connecticut….”
Well, you have just entered the world of identity politics.
There appears, we’ll understate, to be concern among some conservatives—and I do emphasize some, because there’s a whole group of smart conservatives who are avoiding the trap—that Sonia Sotomayor’s so-called identity politics have compromised her legal judgments, and would continue to do so on the Supreme Court.
These criticisms fly in the face of common sense and the modern bipartisan call for political transparency. Back in the day, legal justice was colorblind, journalists were always objective, and American life was fair to all regardless of race, creed color, gender, etc. Except we know that wasn’t true. Who each of us is, our life experiences and backgrounds, always informs our worldview. (In my time as a news-magazine journalist, I knew I had a perspective, and, like many of my colleagues, I was honest about it. That meant we often counted paragraphs—five for that side, five for the other—to make sure we had been fair.)
But by the standards of people who cry “identity politics!” when someone who looks a little different shows up, the only folks who can practice identity politics are blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, Native Americans, and gays. It’s the shared sense of social injustice that makes you a member of the group and bestows “identity” on you, whether you like it or not.
So does this mean that middle-class men are now the standard for “no identity”? Or perhaps “no identity” is code for an objective and desired standard for all that is right and fair and objective?
Oh, horse hockey, as the white guys used to say.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. had it right when he said, speaking of his own roots and his perspective on immigration and naturalization cases, “I can’t help but think of my own ancestors because it wasn’t that long ago when they were in that position.”
Bravo to him for simply telling the truth. All Judge Sotomayor was saying in that 2001 speech was that who she is—indeed, who each of us is—matters. And maybe bringing that perspective as a Latina to the bench isn’t such a bad idea. Harvard alumna and first female editor of the Harvard Law Review Susan Estrich said this week, “Everyone recognizes that life experience matters, but no one wants to admit how that could be so, since judges don’t make law.” Exactly right.
But here’s the good news for those doomed identity-less white guys. You actually do have an identity! You are in fact a minority in America. Embrace your status, file a brief, find your own voice. Because judges like Sonia Sotomayor, what with their identity and their empathy, who have spent a lifetime outside your members-only clubhouse, may be more willing to listen to you than you ever thought possible.
Elaine Lafferty is a former staff correspondent at Time magazine and the Irish Times, features editor at More magazine, and editor in chief of Ms. magazine. She is co-author of My Turn at the Bully Pulpit with Greta Van Susteren.