Most of the controversy surrounding Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor focuses on a sentence she uttered in Berkeley in 2001:
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Barack Obama and his spokesman have more or less said that she misspoke on that occasion. But a raft of documents released by the White House last week suggest that the "better conclusion" part has been more recurrent theme than one-time misstatement. Seven years earlier, for example, she said almost the same thing, adding that "better" meant "a more compassionate, caring decision."
These statements should be kept in context. In the Berkeley speech, she also acknowledged that white males could reach wise decisions, as in the 1954 Supreme Court decision mandating school desegregation. Nor did she seem enthusiastic about the jurisprudence of a black male who’d grown up in poverty, Clarence Thomas.
On the whole, though, she sounded skeptical that judges can "truly transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices" and suggested that genuine impartiality was no more than an aspiration "because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others."
One could argue in circles about what Sotomayor meant to say, but what she seemed to say is fairly clear: It's quite hard for jurists to understand people of different ethnicities well enough to administer reliable justice to them in certain cases. And white males have a particularly hard time doing it.
This view doesn't make her a racist. She's not saying white men are inferior, just a bit obtuse as a group. But it's not, to use her words, "a better conclusion." If it is, we're sunk.
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