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NOTE 2:The commentary following the article has been italicized to differentiate it from the LA Times article included. That commentary is my own and does not reflect the opinion of the Los Angeles Times editorial staff with whom I am not connected.
Initially I intended to post this piece on June 12, which is the same day the opinion article appeared in the L.A. Times, however, my intended publication was delayed by unforeseen circumstances not associated with the article or this blog. When I opened my email on the following morning I found that the newspaper had sent me an auto-response resulting from my attempt to get my full comment published in its original form as a letter to the editor rather than the slash and burn abridged version that ultimately appeared as an on-line submission commenting on the article. I may delay this posting even longer to see if the newspaper actually publishes the letter I submitted. The auto-response indicates they the editors will reach their decision to either use that letter or reject it within seven days, but I doubt that I will wait that long before posting this. I will be surprised if they choose to publish my letter.
Inasmuch as I posted the article entitled “The Myth of Hispanic Race” back on May 31, 2009, 13 days prior to the appearance of the LA Times article regarding “a mythic ‘Hispanic’,” the question of who stole what from whom would make for a lively debate.
Los Angeles Times
Judge Sotomayor, a mythic ‘Hispanic’
By Jonathan Zimmerman
June 12, 2009
The supposedly racial term was pushed by Nixon to lump distinct Spanish-speaking groups into one voting bloc. There’s no such thing, and the judge should be appointed on her merits.
Here’s a good argument for putting Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court: She’s knowledgeable, respected and deeply experienced. As a federal judge for nearly two decades, she’s heard thousands of cases and written hundreds of opinions.
And here’s a lousy argument for confirming Sotomayor: She would be the first “Hispanic” on the court.
I put the term in quotation marks because it’s a recent invention, dating to the 1970s and ’80s. Before then, when Sotomayor was growing up with her Puerto Rican family in New York City, she was not Hispanic.
And words make a difference. As many commentators have reminded us since President Obama nominated Sotomayor, judges are inevitably shaped by their life experiences. But these experiences are themselves shaped and, sometimes, distorted by the terms that we use to describe them.
How did Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, Panamanians, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans all become Hispanic?
Amid the African American civil rights struggle of the 1960s, many of these groups joined hands to demand voting rights, bilingual education and social services. Here they received a big assist from an unlikely source: Richard Nixon. Eager to bring Mexicans and other Latino immigrants into the Republican fold, Nixon also saw them as a potential bulwark against black political aspirations.
“All Spanish-speaking Americans share certain characteristics a strong family structure, deep ties to the church, which makes them open to an appeal from us,” wrote one GOP campaign strategist on the eve of Nixon’s 1972 presidential reelection bid. “The Democratic Party is under suspicion for favoring politically potent blacks at the expense of the needs of Spanish-speaking people.”
So Nixon threw his weight behind bilingual education, which has since become a bête noire for the GOP. He also ordered the Census Bureau to add a query on its 1970 form asking whether respondents were “Hispanic,” hoping to further solidify this new voting bloc.
Census Bureau officials balked, noting correctly that the term lacked scientific and historical precision. They also worried that respondents wouldn’t recognize it. So the most commonly used census form in 1970 asked respondents if they were of “Spanish” origin, not whether they were Hispanic.
All that would change in 1977, when the Office of Management and Budget instructed federal agencies to classify Americans as one of four races white, black, American Indian/Alaskan Native or Asian/Pacific Islander and also to distinguish between two ethnic categories, “of Hispanic origin” and “not of Hispanic origin.” Since then, the census has asked people their race and whether they’re Hispanic, which is not listed as a “race” per se.
Increasingly, however, Americans thought of it as such. Government agencies used “Hispanic” alongside “Asian” and “black,” making Hispanic into a de facto racial category. Businesses and educational institutions counted Hispanics or, sometimes, “Latinos” as a race in diversity and affirmative action reports.
Not surprisingly, then, Hispanics became more likely over time to identify themselves as a separate race too. In the mid-1990s, 60% of the respondents to a study of more than 5,000 Latin American immigrants self-identified as “white,” for example, but only 20% of their children did so.
That’s an unprecedented development, as the United States had continuously absorbed people formerly identified in the census as from nonwhite races into the white majority. Jews, Italians and Slavs were all once classified as separate races; now, they’re white. But Hispanics are moving in the opposite direction from white to nonwhite. In our minds, at least, they’ve become a minority race.
The language of race is a unifying one, blinding us to the irreducible diversity that a single category can contain. Consider Sotomayor’s now infamous comment that a “wise Latina woman” would render a better judicial decision than a white male. While GOP antagonists accused Sotomayor of reverse racism and Democrats rushed to her defense, nobody pointed out that wise Latina women come in all shapes, sizes and ideologies. Would a wise Cuban woman in South Florida see eye-to-eye with a wise Mexican woman in San Diego, or with a wise Salvadoran woman in Washington, D.C.? Probably not.
Even worse, the idea of race tricks us into seeing “Hispanic” as a biological category rather than a cultural one. I frequently do an exercise with my students, asking them how a scientist would identify their race. The most common reply is also the most troubling one: via a blood test. In fact, that would tell you the opposite: We all come from the same ancestor, in East Africa, and we’re all mongrels. The blood test does not identify your “race,” which primarily exists only in our minds.
As a child, Sotomayor was probably classified as white; now she’s Hispanic. But her DNA is the same. The only thing that has changed is the way we look at her. Belying every shard of evidence, we continue to believe that races are different under the skin.
So let’s hope that the Senate confirms Sotomayor, one of the most qualified nominees in the history of the Supreme Court. Then let’s welcome her as the first person of Puerto Rican descent on the court, not as the first “Hispanic.”
If you think the words don’t matter, you haven’t been listening.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University and is the author of the just-published “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”
After carefully reading the opinion article above I attempted to post my comments regarding it through the form provided on the LA Times web site where this article appeared, however, that form restricts all submissions to a mere 633 characters (including the spaces between words, blank lines between paragraphs and punctuation marks). Obviously, the talent for succinct expression has never been one of my stronger characteristics, and while I did carve my comments down to a few brief sentences and managed to get a response accepted through the form provided, that comment was so carved up in the process that it lost the meaning that further explanation provides. Nonetheless, the desire to express a response to the opinion above persisted. I emailed a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times and was promptly rewarded with a note back saying basically don’t call us, we’ll call you if we use it and we reserve the right to edit it if we do use it. Still pretty unsatisfying and since the note also stated that they would review the letter within seven days, a point well beyond which my response will become meaningless to their subscribers average 33 second attention span, I began to feel downright frustrated, but what the hell, it’s their paper and this is my blog. What they won’t print, I will, and with that being said, here is an enlarged version of the response I sent to them.
If the deplorable decision Sotomayor participated in regarding Ricci v. DeStefano is not sufficient to dismiss her nomination to the Supreme Court then the two cases that Sotomayor presided over that have already been overturned by the higher court should be. Of the 150 cases she has participated in during her 10 years on the Second Circuit, Ricci v. DeStefano was, without any doubt, among the most important, and yet she, very casually blew it off along with the important constitutional issues it raised.
The Supreme Court of the United States has the ultimate responsibility to adjudicate legal issues, interpret the meaning of constitutional provisions, review the application of constitutional provisions with respect to local, state, and federal laws, settle disputes between two or more states or between the federal government and a state and to serve as the highest court of appeal in the nation. The Supreme Court lacks the institutional capacity to make political judgments that are better left by elected officials serving in their capacity as representatives of the American voters. The elected officials entrusted to make the policy decisions that affect the best interests of the American public can be held accountable by the American voters for the decisions they make, however, the Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and can not be held accountable by the American voters.
In her 2005 speech at Duke Law School, Sotomayor expressed the belief that the “Court of Appeals is where policy is made,” and if the news media is to be trusted, she has publicly repeated the belief that the role of an appellate court judge is to establish policy on three other occasions. If Sotomayor’s nomination is confirmed we can expect that she will exercise her expressed belief and use her authority as a Supreme Court Justice to establish government policies that are better left to the legislature and the administrative branches of government who have a better grasp on the political implications of their decisions and a greater understanding of how a given decision potentially impacts existing policies such as economic policies, foreign affairs or national security.
The United States Constitution provides the American people with a system of checks and balances by dividing the jurisdictional responsibilities of the federal government among the legislative, administrative and judicial branches. It is a system that has worked fairly well for more than 233 years and the fact that the American people still have some limited degree of freedom and liberty today is sufficient evidence to warrant that the established system is effective. Supreme Court justices legislating government policy from the bench is an erosion of the constitutional system of checks and balances and poses a very serious threat to the balance of power that has protected our freedom so far. Sonia Sotomayor’s belief that judges should exercise their ability to establish government policy is, by itself, ample justification for dismissing her nomination.
The fact that Sotomayor strongly identifies with a non-existent race might be an indication that she would render decisions that ultimately exacerbate this nation’s divisive disunity, but racial identification (mythical or otherwise) should not be considered when assessing her qualifications. There is plenty of substantiating evidence to indicate that her past performance as a judge has been weak and her personal philosophy is radically delusional.
By the Way, as far as being the first “Hispanic” to sit in the Supreme Court, if you consider being of Spanish and Portuguese descent as being “Hispanic,” the honor of being the first Hispanic to sit in the Supreme Court went to Benjamin Cardozo back in 1932.
As far as the term “Hispanic” is concerned, while some of Mr. Zimmerman says is correct, as a term of reference to the people from Mexico, Central and South America, it did gain a lot of ground during the Nixon Administration, however, whether or not he had any responsibility for it remains very questionable and it is a real stretch to blame Richard Nixon and the Republican Party for creating the illusion of a “Hispanic” race. It would be just as easy to make the claim that the Mexican, Central American and South American immigrants identified themselves by the term “Hispanic” as some of those individuals became more politically conscious and, in particular, aware of the progress that Black Americans were making at the time. Further research would be required to substantiate the casual acceptance of the term in modern times but the word itself is rooted a lot farther back than Mr. Zimmerman seems willing to admit. Hispania was the name given to the Iberian Peninsula and Hispanus was the Latin name given to a person from Hispania during Roman’s rule of the area that is now considered Spain. The literal translation of “Hispanic” would be “of Spain,” which by the way is considered a European country populated predominantly by white and Mediterranean people ranging from brown skin to white. While I am at it I may as well point out that the term “Latino” would similarly be translated as meaning “Of Latin” which is also fairly frustrating because it describes something originating in countries once dominated by Rome where Latin was spoken, including Sa
If the term “Hispanic” is taken to mean anyone from a country where Spanish is one of the dominant languages then there are at least 27 different countries that would be considered as being “Hispanic.” If the word “Hispanic” were to be defined by ethnic groups or cultures fluent in the Spanish language the whole thing becomes even more complex because Spanish is one of the primary languages spoken among 75 to 100 diverse cultural groups ranging from the indigenous Xicano people originally from southern Guatemala (and the origin of the term”Chicano”) to the Fang people of Equatorial Guinea on the African continent. In the United State there are people of Afghan, Estonian, German, Greek, Iranian, Irish, Jewish, Laotian, Nigerian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Welsh, Bangladeshi and Arab descent who speak Spanish fluently and use it regularly to interact with their legal and illegal neighbors, customers and contacts. Every group has its own ethnic heritage and cultural differences and the color of their skin ranges from ebony to pale pink so it would pretty tough to label them all “Hispanics” simply because they happen to speak Spanish. “Hispanic” is not more a racial classification that “American” is a racial classification. There is not common culture, physical characteristic or genetic difference between a blonde, blue-eyed “Hispanic” from Barcelona and a blonde, blue-eyed American whose ancestors came from who knows where. “Hispanic” is a term that like “American” defies racial or scientific description. It might describe the political affiliation of a group of radical activists, it might describe a social cause shared by a group of people but it is not a racial classification and anyone whose feeble sense of self-identity is founded on a vague term like “Hispanic” is too mentally unstable to be considered credible and certainly shouldn’t be trusted with sharp objects, let alone the authority that comes with a seat in the Supreme Court.
The decision to support or reject Sonia Sotomayor should not be based on race, it should be based on her qualifications as a judge (qualifications she appears to be lacking), and it should be based on her ability to resist pushing her own personal racial and political agenda down the throats of the American people from a court room when those things should be determined by elected representatives we can get rid of when they prove themselves incompetent. Race has nothing to do with anything; the American people are well past all of that nonsense and shouldn’t be made to feel guilt for rejecting an unqualified nominee simply because she happens to identify with a non-existent race. If race is an issue it is her issue, not ours, and we can’t gamble the balance of our entire form of government against the sensibilities of a delusional, questionably qualified female. The stakes are simply to high.
The Los Angeles Times editorial staff usually reserves space for the letters of those expressing views contrary to the accepted liberal norm only when those letters appear to be written by someone who is entirely unhinged from reality. Intelligent arguments and debate appear to be as unwelcome in the L.A. Times as substantiated facts, solid evidence and objective journalism. Facts merely get in the way of a decently convincing lie.
Hispanic, Sonia Sotomayor
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