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Sotomayor and that dangerous word "Better"

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Years ago, back when I was teaching while pregnant, a couple of undergrad guys chose to sit in desks over against one side wall of the classroom, where they could watch my breasts getting bigger as the semester, and my pregnancy, progressed. It is a given that no man teaching college courses has had exactly this experience, and it would be nice to hope that the experience in some way made me better at recognizing and understanding that some individuals are subjected to experiences that others are not, for reasons beyond the individual’s own control or choice.

To be strictly honest, however, this one limited and slightly off-base experience probably did not do much for me. I was alert enough to observe what was happening. I was conscientious enough not to allow it to affect my grading. I was rational and optimistic enough to recognize that these two guys were the only ones acting that way, out of a large class of 30+ students I was teaching—one of the three college courses I was teaching that semester, this being what they call ‘part-time’ in academia. Literally, it would never have occurred to me to take out my wrath on all white guys (both kids were white as well as male). Still, in all honesty this was not a good example of the kind of suffering that broadens the soul. I had long since developed a habit of trying to be courageous about speaking in front of people, as most shy persons have to do. The only thoughts I remember were more along the lines of superficial irritation or visceral wrath or bad jokes. Nothing uplifting about it.

The main reason the experience did not teach me more about some kinds of gender-based wrongs is that I had little to learn. At that stage I had already learned it, and experience helps. I had already experienced, had observed, had read about, and had heard of plenty more, and worse, incidents to acquaint any thinking person with the grimmer aspects of sexual misconduct, gender bias, and sexual harassment in the workplace.

One simple principle any civic-minded person in the U.S. needs to learn is that a pattern observable for long enough must come to be regarded as intentional. The prime historical example would be those separate but supposedly equal schools provided to African-Americans back when segregation was upheld by our highest courts: Everyone knew that the separate schools were not equal, but it took time to force the courts to recognize that that inequality had to be regarded as deliberate. Back to my limited example—I had no reason to think that the trifling behavior I saw three times a week in one class was the rule rather than the exception in college classes. If it had been tacitly or overtly instituted or supported by school authorities, my situation would have been very different, and I would have felt helpless, which is the really destructive component of an ordinary situation. Admittedly--come to think of it--I never seriously considered turning the guys in or complaining to a superior about the matter, and perhaps I should have done so. By now I don’t know whether the reduced situation of part-timers influenced me unduly, or I just had too much a habit of trying to be independent, of taking care of things myself. Also, the guys’ behavior did not include their actually saying anything--nothing in words, you know the drill—a kind of sexual tactic also cultivated by some lawyers, regrettably, so that they can do that whole predatory thing better, without saying anything that could be quoted against them.

There’s that word better again.

The history of racism is quite simply the history of a belief, or anyway a position, that some people are better than others by birth. Opposition to racism is based largely on a belief that birth should not factor much into any philosophical question of which individuals are better than others. This is not to say that all standards of better and worse should be thrown out. Quite the contrary. The standards to be applied are to be applied with regard to experience, ability and character.

The reason Sotomayor is better than Rush Limbaugh—and she unquestionably is—is not just that she is a Latina who went from the school of hard knocks on to excel at Princeton and Yale Law School, while Limbaugh is a white male from an affluent and politically connected family who could succeed only as a ranting radio host. The reason Sotomayor is better than Limbaugh is not even that she is smarter than he, probably—I’m not entering a Guess-their-IQ contest—and works harder than he. The reason she is better is that she has shown character along the way, character that he did not show. For the same reason, she is also better than Newt Gingrich. Gingrich and Limbaugh obviously recognize this key point—which is why they are falsely accusing Sotomayor of ‘racism,’ infuriatingly pretending that she is claiming a superiority by birth, when her entire life points to the opposite view, that actions, development, are more important than birth. You know, better—as in the example of the proverb that ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ where actions are implicitly better than words. (That words would be better than actions in some situations is beside the point.)

This is where character comes in: Having experienced more difficulty, having suffered in life, might or might not be better. Jeffrey Dahmer did not come out of his family background improved by abuse. Whether the experience is better depends on whether it makes you a better person. Having the ability to understand what you have experienced, having the determination not to let it down you if negative or inflate you if positive, having the sense of justice not to take it out on other people—that is what is better.

For the record, Sotomayor’s 2001 speech clearly makes this point—I emphasize, clearly--throughout. For example: “Being a Latina in America also does not mean speaking Spanish. I happen to speak it fairly well. But my brother, only three years younger, like too many of us educated here, barely speaks it. Most of us born and bred here, speak it very poorly.” Some Latinos speak Spanish better and some worse, in other words—a difference determined not by birth but by actions.

As the nonprofit media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) notes, the right managed to frame the debate, if you call it that, over Sotomayor. CNN among other media outlets has ceaselessly and selectively quoted only that one “wise Latina” sentence, with no gesture in the direction of context or objectivity. But thus far—more fundamentally--televised commentary even on the one quoted comment has missed, or misstated, the point. Sotomayor’s analogy is not between the experience of a white male and the experience of a Latina woman. The analogy, as in my personal anecdote at the top of this essay, is to a comparative lack of experience, of some kinds of experience, for the white male. Women and minorities do not have a monopoly on suffering, as every white male can attest from personal experience. But a white male does not experience that casual prejudice or slur or worse, at a glance and on the spot, purely because he was born a member of a category. When Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are disparaged, it is not because they are white males. They get ridicule or criticism the old-fashioned way. They earned it.

Note: This column expands on the post last week at www.margieburns.com.



Freelance journalist in metro DC area.

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