Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, made a statement during a law lecture at UC Berkeley that has been the subject of considerable scrutiny from both the media and members of Congress. Of particular interest, and the topic of our discussion here, is the extent to which evaluating this statement has devolved into an exercise in misinterpretation and manipulation of meaning.
The statement in question is the following:
“I 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.”
To be fair, this claim was made in reference to sexual and race discrimination cases, rather than the more troubling interpretation that follows from applying this statement to legal decisions in general. Our question is a simple one: what does this statement actually mean?
Opponents of Sotomayor’s nomination have interpreted it as a racist statement. How might this be racist? Sotomayor is saying that a Latina female, drawing on her experience as a woman and a minority, would make a better decision than a white male more often than she would make a worse one. But that isn’t racist, that’s just pointing out that under some conditions, race and sex can be a kind of qualification. Sotomayor’s statement is no different than pointing out that if you need an undercover cop to work Chinatown, you ought to hire a Chinese person. Sotomayor’s comment is interesting, it might be problematic from a legal standpoint, but it’s not obvious how it’s racist.
Proponents of Sotomayor’s nomination, on the other hand, have substantially reinterpreted this comment in order to avoid scrutiny. A recent article from Slate.com, for example, saw fit to point out that it was “obvious” that a Latina woman would have different experiences than a white male, and would make different judgments as a result. Maybe so, but “different” and “better” are not synonyms. Sotomayor said a Latina woman would make a better decision. Better implies different, but that doesn’t give these words the same meaning. To be better, you must also be different; you need not be better in order to be different.
Sotomayor has herself contributed to the slaughtered meaning of this statement, an unsurprising event in the volatile political climate of Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In order to address concerns raised about her reliance on her background in making important legal decisions, Sotomayor stated that regardless of background, a justice must rely “completely” on the law in making legal decisions. That’s probably a good strategy for having her nomination confirmed, but it further confuses the meaning of her initial statement. If being a Latina woman is helpful in making better legal decisions, it can’t also be the case that a justice relies on the law “completely” when they make those same decisions. Once again, meaning has been sacrificed in the name of politics.
What’s the moral of the story? It’s not that we should or shouldn’t support Sotomayor’s nomination, nor a revelation of what the intended meaning of this statement actually was. What is clear, however, is that meaning is subject to social manipulations and political objectives, regardless of what words and phrases actually mean outside the context of this auspicious maneuvering. So the next time you hear political pundits and assorted talking heads quibbling over some statement that a public figure has made, think about two things: what the statement actually means and what the statement cannot possibly mean. This will help separate meaning from political make-believe.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.