Obama defends Sotomayor on race

The president says she might have "restated" her "wise Latina woman" remark but calls the flap over it "nonsense."


Joan Walsh
May 30, 2009 2:30PM (UTC)

NBC Nightly News' Brian Williams has been spending some time with President Obama, for a two-part "Inside the Obama White House" series that will run June 2 and 3. But apparently the network feels it got a mini-scoop in some remarks Obama made about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and so they sent out a press release Friday evening.

The newsworthy comments came when Williams asked Obama about the quote that's getting Sotomayor branded a "racist" by white male Republican has-beens like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Tom Tancredo. Here's their exchange:

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WILLIAMS: This is the quote, 'I would hope that a wise Latino 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.' It's your judgment perhaps, having talked to the judge, that as we say, that's one of those she'd rather have back if she had it to redo?

OBAMA:  I'm sure she would have restated it. But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through -- that will make her a good judge. And you know, she was pointing out, in that same essay, that it was nine white males who passed down Brown versus Board of Education, which is probably responsible for me sitting here. So that's hardly the kind of statement that would indicate that she subscribes to identity politics. In fact, what she really subscribes to is the exact opposite. Which is the sense that all of us have life experiences and struggles. And part of the job of a justice on the Supreme Court, or any judge, is to be able to stand in somebody else's shoes, to be able to, you know, understand that the nature of the case, and how it has an impact on people's ordinary day to day lives.

And so her, as a Latino woman part of her job is gonna be to listen to the farmer in Iowa. And you know, if he's upset about a farm regulation. And be able to understand how hard it is to farm. And what that means. And to be able to incorporate that into her decision making. It means that she has an understanding of what a corporate CEO might be thinking. And she had those experiences as well. Having worked as a corporate litigator. That breadth of experience, that knowledge of how the world works, is part of what we want for a justice who's gonna be effective. And I think that when she's appearing before the senate committee, in her confirmation process, I think all this nonsense that is being spewed out will be revealed for what it is.

I'm glad Obama called the flap "nonsense." On Tuesday I said something similar to what Obama said today -- that Sotomayor might regret that remark, and perhaps could have used a better word than "better" about the difference between a wise Latina and a wise white man's judgment. I would actually like to go back and modify my remarks, slightly. When I criticized Sotomayor for her "better" statement, I hadn't read the entire speech (it's a speech she gave at UC-Berkeley in 2001, later published in a law journal. The New York Times republished it here.) Sotomayor in fact made the same point I made by hailing Justice Harry Blackmun's work for women's rights in his abortion decisions, when she pointed to the nine white men who decided correctly in Brown v. Board of Education. White male judges can do,  and frequently have done, the right thing legally.

And later in the speech, she specifically repudiates the kind of identity politics approach to judicial matters that she's being accused of, talking about her efforts to get beyond the confines of her own experience to approach the law fairly: "I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires."

Still, the smears continue. Karl Rove claimed on Fox news that he learned Sotomayor "was not a particularly effective colleague ... that she was combative, opinionated, argumentative, and as a result, was not able to sort of help create a consensus opinion on important issues," back when he was vetting the choice of Justice Sam Alito, "her colleague on the court." Except Alito wasn't Sotomayor's colleague; he worked in the 3rd Circuit, she comes from the 2nd. The always creepy G. Gordon Liddy commented on his radio show today, "Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad," and called the U.S.-born Sotomayor an "illegal alien." Will any mainstream Republican have the decency to call off the racists and sexists in their party? Don't hold your breath. 

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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