06/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sotomayor Racist?

Isn't it just amazing how so many conservative columnists and talk radio hosts are suddenly outraged by racism? Editorial writers and politicians who have never before joined the battle against racism are suddenly speaking out! And why?

...Is it because they are sick and tired of the fact that white women and people of color get paid significantly less money for the exact same work and educational levels as white men?

... Is it because they are sick and tired of Latina women earning only 72 percent of what white women earn, and only 57.8 percent of white men?

...Is it because the poverty rate for Black and Hispanic children is triple that of white children?

....Is it because the current recession is disproportionately effecting Black and Hispanic families and sharply increasing the unemployment gap?

No! No! No! and No! While these problems and many more have continued for decades, without nary a peep from these fine gentlemen, what is it that has finally shaken them to their core and made them realize racism is a serious moral problem worth speaking out and fighting against? It is a single comment made by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor explaining that she "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."

The nerve! How could she?

Let's look at those words one more time. She did not say a wise Latina woman WOULD reach a better conclusion. She tentatively HOPED; and HOPED that someone with this kind of experience might make a better decision not ALL THE TIME, simply MORE OFTEN THAN NOT.

And we are asked to imagine how a white man would be attacked for saying the same sort of thing. The problem is, it is not the same sort of thing.

Let me share an analogy that puts this whole issue into some perspective. There is an educational activity I have participated in, sometimes called the "Race for the American Dream." Participants start out standing along a horizontal line in the middle of the room, all facing the front. We are then asked to take a step forward or backwards after each item in a series of prompts is read. Participants respond to a long list of statements such as:

"If every US president and vice president has been of your race (or gender)" take a step forward...

"If people of your race (or gender) were ever systematically denied entry to colleges, law schools or medical schools because of their race/gender" take a step backward....

No matter how many times I have seen this activity carried out, the results are the same. You guessed it, the white men end up right at the front of the room, sometimes with their noses up against the wall. I usually end with most of the other white women, somewhere in the middle, and the people of color end up somewhere near the back. Even when issues of socioeconomic class are added in, the results don't vary much. This activity mirrors the effects of hundreds of years of race and gender inequality in our society, where unfortunately we are still not starting on an even playing field; some of us are starting with a huge leg up.

What I have always remembered most about this activity is when one person asked us to stop and take a look at what we could see from where we were standing. What do those at the front of the room see? They see others like themselves standing along side them. It is those standing furthest back in the room have the most expansive field of vision.

And this is what Sotomayor's comment is getting at, and those guys at the front of the room have had their vision narrowed for so long they just can't see the whole picture. When you start out with two strikes against you, forced to confront both race and gender inequality, prejudice, and very real, ongoing discrimination, you have a much larger view of how things operate. You have no choice but to learn to shift among cultures, to learn to fit in and see the world as the dominant culture does. Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, President of the American Sociological Association, calls this the "Outsider Within." When you are an outsider within, you learn to see the world from multiple perspectives. Those of us in the dominant culture do not have to learn to see the world from other perspectives--our very limited perspective determines the rules of the game.

This also really drives home exactly why we need more diverse voices on the Supreme Court. White men are a minority of the population, yet hold seven of the nine seats. Even before her nomination was announced, the conservative pundits were preparing their responses, outraged that Obama might proactively seek out the voices of women, and even worse, apparently, women of color. Why don't we turn those tables for a moment -- just imagine if seven of the Supreme Court Justices, just like the majority of the population, were women? Would anyone argue against the value of including men's voices?

The fact that these conservative politicians and commentators don't even see racism unless they feel it is directed against them is precisely why we need the voices of women of color on the court, and all the support we need for Sotomayor's conclusion.

And I am willing to take Sotomayor's comments one step further. I not only hope, but expect, that more often than not a wise woman of color will reach a better conclusion than a white man, or white woman for that matter (there are of course always exceptions, such as Justice Thomas, and you can bet the Republicans will always find them).

It is a sign of how much these white men don't get it, that this is the instance of "racism" they are up in arms about. When these same writers and politicians start to actively speak out about the entrenched and pervasive race and gender inequality in the U.S., then maybe they will then deserve to be taken seriously on the subject of racism.