Sotomayor Was Right the First Time: A Wise Latina Does Know More

08/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Supreme court nominee Sonia Sotomayor now famously said, in 2001, that she would hope a "wise Latina would make better decisions because of her life experiences than a white male."

As she noted, those have become her most-quoted words, overwhelmed by a firestorm of opinion characterizing her as racist or worse. Before long, she was forced to eat her own words (as in a Boston Globe headline, "Sotomayor Repudiates 'Wise Latina' Comment.")

She was right the first time. A Wise Latina woman does know more.

Notice your own reaction in this instant, after reading this blogpost title and that last sentence.

Most of you had a quick emotional reaction--negative for most, positive for some. You interpret it as a political statement, and you probably made an inference about my own political views.

Let me try to find the rarified air wherein that statement has nothing to do with racism or politics, and should not provoke any emotions at all. It is simply a statement about the dynamics of human beings when they are cast in roles of minority and majority. It should provoke no more adrenaline than an observation about the feeding habits of penguins.

The Dance of Majority and Minority

People observe and believe very different things based on whether they are members of a minority, or of a majority. One group, I suggest, notices more, and knows more, than the other.

This isn't about race per se: it's about a mixture of numbers and power. Suppose Group A constitutes 70% of a culture's population, and 85% of its economic and political wealth. Groups B and C each represent 10% of the population, and 5% of its economic and political wealth.

All groups--A,B and C--will view Group A as the dominant culture. The habits, opinions, styles, language, likes and dislikes, family patterns and ideologies of Group A will dominate in institutions, advertising, government, etc.

If you're a young A person, you conclude that your culture is the norm. Mathematically, you are absolutely right. Emotionally, you conclude that you are also "right," and that other cultures, being in the minority, are odd, unusual, out of the ordinary.

If you're a young B or C person, you see the same facts. You also know that A people are the norm--you can do the math too. Unfortunately, you likely also internalize the majority view that B-ness or C-ness is somehow odd, unusual, out of the ordinary.

It is but the tiniest of steps from the above for an A person to judge a B or C person as "weird," wrong, or inferior--and to simply not notice many differences. More insidiously, it's also a tiny step for Bs and Cs to think the same of themselves. (Being a minority is a helluva psychic challenge).

Each group understands the As. But the As impute mainstream characteristics--which happen to be their own--to everyone. Hence they literally do not notice many characteristics of Bs and Cs, assuming them to be identical to mainstream (and their own) ways of life. The most "normal" Bs and Cs, to an A, are those who most resemble As. ("But you don't look Jewish...")

An example: you're driving down the highway; the person in the passenger seat of a passing car has his or her feet up on the dashboard of the car.

Of all the feet on all the dashboards of all the cars in the US, what percentage of the time are those feet likely to be the feet of a black person?

a. 0%
b. 5%
c. 10%
d. 25%

If you're a white person, you're likely to guess a number in line with the black percentage of the US population.

But if you're a black person, you know the answer is a, or just about 0%. Because In the black community, putting one's bare feet up on a car's dashboard, or a table, is considered just plain rude.

The reason white people don't know this is that black people know what happens if they try to explain it. Picture yourself as an African American, trying to explain to a white senator that his kids are rude because they see nothing wrong with putting their feet on the dashboard. Will the Senator hear it as anthropological information? Or as insulting racist talk? Take a wild guess.

So we have:

1. Minority people (black, in this case) know what to expect from everyone on the foot test.

2. Majority people (white in this case) do not know what to expect from everyone on the foot test.

3. QED: minority people know more than majority people. Sotomayor was dead right.

Then why did she repudiate herself? Because majorities tend to hear statements of minority knowledge as insults to the majority.

And, since majorities can't see what minorities can, it's a losing battle to protest. Easier to repudiate yourself.

If you're white, and think that blacks overstate racism, then ask yourself: how emotionally disturbed was I by this headline? If the answer was, "a lot," but you also see the point of this blog, then that tells you how deeply embedded majoritism (racism, sexism, etc.) is in this society. Your gut instinct was to hear the truth as an insult. Just like a Senator who heard "a double minority person knows more then a white male."

Very sad, perhaps. Yet also, simply very true.