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Time Magazine Misses the Mark on “Wise Latina” (Update)

John on July 15, 2009 at 10:31 am

Carolina A. Miranda writing for Time asks “Just What is a Wise Latina, Anyway?” Her first answer is that the Latin culture has the same archetypal “wise old men (and women)” found in every culture. This is a semi-mythical figure, sometimes with healing powers, who provides guidance to heroes on their journeys.

As to what Sotomayor meant in context, Miranda (who blogs here) jumbles it a bit:

At the July 14 hearing, the nominee explained that “wise Latina” was her attempt to play off a quote by retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who said that “both men and women were equally capable of being wise and fair judges.” Sotomayor said that “my play fell flat. It was bad.” But Sotomayor is just trying to ameliorate her critics without having to make them look… unwise. She has nothing to apologize for — and neither have other politicians and judicial nominees who have said the same thing in their own words.

She was indeed trying to “play off” what justice O’Connor had said. Here is the original quote with the reference to justice O’Connor:

Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor [Martha] Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, 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.

O’Connor seems to be referencing the same archetypal figures. The wise old man or woman is a constant that transcends culture. She takes from this that gender (and presumably race) play no part in one’s ultimate access to wisdom. Judge Sotomayor rejects this and instead suggested that a “wise Latina” would probably make a better decision that a white male (whose experience presumably isn’t so rich).

Ms. Miranda explains the sort of rich experience Sotomayor may have had in mind:

In the 1997 biopic Selena, there is an eye-rolling Latino Studies 101 moment in which Olmos, playing Selena’s dad, talks about how difficult it is to ride the divide between Latino and American in the United States. “We gotta know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante,” he huffs. “We gotta know about Frank Sinatra and Agustin Lara. We gotta know about Oprah and Cristina.” Update: We gotta know about the Jonas Brothers and RBD. In other words, we gotta be wise to the ways of more than one culture.

Of course her point isn’t about Oprah, it’s about living astride cultures in a way that provides enough distance to create objectivity. I don’t have a problem with this in theory, but here’s where Sotomayor’s analysis (and Miranda’s) falls badly short. Having enough distance from one’s culture to view it with objectivity is not something limited to Latinas.

For instance, the same could be said of Jews who have to know Seth Rogen and “borscht belt” comedy. The same could be said of African Americans who are perfectly conversant with the broader American culture of today but many of whom also feel a kind of responsibility to carry with them the facts of their own unique history in this country from slavery to civil rights. And there are undoubtedly many white Christians in this country who have to know Celine Dion and Amy Grant or, more significantly, Bart Ehrman and FF Bruce. Latinas aren’t the only Americans who walk in two worlds. When you get down to it, people from every culture and both sexes have reason for appropriate distance from the dominant narrative.

What’s offensive about Sotomayor’s remarks is that she only seems cognizant of one possible rationale for this, i.e. being Latina. So despite what is being claimed on her behalf by Miranda and others, this is not just like what others in politics have said before. Plenty of people have said that their background gives them unique insights, but few have claimed that their race and gender gives them better access to wisdom than what is available to people of other sexes or races.

I can’t help but think that a little more reflection, a little more empathy, a little more wisdom — and judge Sotomayor would quickly have been led back around to the fundamentally American idea that we aren’t so different after all. People are right to be troubled by her comments and her attempts to skirt the issue this week don’t show any real progress on her part. As I said about these statements when Morgen first published them on May 5th, judge Sotomayor “ultimately seems not to have penetrated very deeply into the issue of race and its influence.” I stand by that.

Update: After reading the Time story, I followed a link to the author’s blog (linked above) and left a comment indicating that VS was the source of the “wise Latina” remarks. I expressed my frustration with the fact that Time, like the National Journal and others, were crediting the NY Times for a story which we had published fully 10 days before, and which was already widely read among other blogs by the time the Times got to it. I didn’t even ask for a correction because, honestly, at this point my expectations are pretty low.

Much credit to Carolina A. Miranda then who, without me really even asking, made a correction to the story including a link to our original posting of the “wise Latina” comment. Truth be told, I almost feel bad about disagreeing with her now that she’s been so kind. But as I read over what I wrote, I think it was generally respectful disagreement and certainly nothing personal.

In any case, our sincere thanks to Time and Carolina Miranda. You’ve restored a bit of our faith in big media.

[Note: I originally attributed the Time story Karen Bleier. Actually she was the photographer credited for the shot of Sotomayor. The author is actually Carolina Miranda. (Doh!) I've corrected the post. So it's corrections all around I guess.]

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