Just some facts and observations to set the stage:
Today as I was leaving the Defense Intelligence Agency after a board meeting at the National Defense Intelligence College, I passed a long wall of distinguished oil portraits of generals and admirals — all white men. I know some of them through my work on the NDIC board, and they are certainly thoughtful, decent people, and I admire those whom I have come to know as colleagues. When I joined the NDIC board many years ago, I was one of two women on that board, but in the last few years our numbers have grown; now we are three, and today I also see so many more women in leadership at the NDIC and DIA.
I’ve been the “only” or one of few women in many rooms during two decades as Trinity’s president, but I also am seeing great changes in the balance at many tables.
Downtown in a business organization where I have been active for years, the portraits and photos of the leaders over the years line the walls of that board room. With a few exceptions, most of them are white men, and I know quite a few, and they are thoughtful, decent people who have contributed much to our city and region. A few portraits of women and African American business leaders appear in latter years, and we hope for more to come. I think that those of us who bring different perspectives to that board feel we are making a great deal of progress in influencing how the business organization responds to issues in our larger community that’s more diverse than ever before.
On yet another board, when I first joined years ago, white men also dominated, and sometimes I felt quite isolated. Today that company has extraordinary female leadership in the CEO’s position and the CEO of the leading subsidiary, and the board is increasingly diversified, and will continue to change in the years to come.
Since 1789, All 44 presidents of the United States have been men, all white men until January 20, 2009. Social change did make a difference in paving the way for the electorate to make this choice.
In the lifetime of women we know even now, women did not have the right to vote in this country. Women’s votes now make the critical difference in presidential elections.
Of 500 chief executive officers listed on this year’s Fortune 500, 15 are women, and that’s great progress. But still, 485 are men, mostly white men, just like the majority of Congress and the Supreme Court. Change is coming, albeit slowly.
What’s this litany all about? Nobody needs a recitation of my personal experiences to know the incontrovertible fact that, until recently, women and people of color did not have much access to positions of power and influence in our society, most of which were held by white males. But sometimes when I hear contemporary commentaries, I have to do a reality check just to be sure I was not making up what I thought was true.
And, yes, I consult my personal experience as one touchstone of that reality check. Which is part of my point here. Personal experience does influence our view of the facts.
When I heard that certain well known pundits and commentators had labeled Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor “racist” for a comment she made eight years ago about white men and Latina women, I needed a reality check. People who have never, for one second of their lives, felt the gut-wrenching, soul-crushing, inescapable vise of discrimination on the basis of gender or race were suddenly howling in rage. People like George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Tancredo, Lindsay Graham and Newt Gingrich, people who fit the very definition of men in powerful positions. Their rage made me think that they were actually afraid — of what?
I went to find the speech that is the source of this controversy. What has been hard to find in any of the commentaries is the exact context of her statement in which she said, “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.”
The context for this comment was a much longer speech at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law where then-Judge Sotomayor was addressing a symposium with the headline: “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation” In fact, the specific purpose of the talk that she was invited to give centered on the absence of Latino representation in the nation’s highest legal decision-making circles. A serious topic grounded in real facts.
Perhaps if Sonia Sotomayor knew in 2001 that she would be nominated for the Supreme Court in 2009, she might have tempered her controversial comment by using the word “different” instead of “better.” But if you read the entire talk (click on the link here) what she said seems not so very different from what people of many different races, cultures, gender perspectives, religions, ethnicities say to each other every single day about other people. We all think that we could make better decisions for ourselves than those who are making them for us. Historically, one group of people has always made the big decisions for everyone else, for better or worse. Change is occurring, slowly at times, but the very fact of the sociological change in board rooms and legislative chambers and judicial benches and the Oval Office is a great threat to some people.
Consider also that, at the same time as she’s being excoriated for her remark about gender and race, the blogosphere is also breathing hot and heavy about the perceived over-representation of Catholics on the Supreme Court.
The oft-quoted author of The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell made this point in his bestseller: “We are actually powerfully influenced by our surroundings, our immediate context, and the personality of those around us.”
Judge Sotomayor also said this in her talk:
“Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion. 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. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”
That passage certainly seems to indicate a sensible judicial mindset in which she is aware of the need to make dispassionate decisions yet also aware of the influences of personal experience. That’s plain old human reality.
In our very nature at Trinity — a college founded because women once were excluded from higher education, a university now serving women and men who still might be excluded for reasons of race or income or other parts of their background story — we accept the personal as a significant part of the social construction of society. Our educational challenge, of course, is to move every student beyond the personal to a vision and view of the common good, the collective work of building communities and corporations where everyone has an equal opportunity regardless of personal characteristics. We all have to leave some piece of our narrow personal preferences behind in our shared quest to build a peaceful, just society.
In the same speech at Berkeley, Judge Sotomayor also noted this paradox in the American story:
“America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension. We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud.”
Justice is not always blind, as many justices will attest, but ethical lawmaking requires extreme care to discipline the personal perspective. If Judge Sotomayor is ultimately confirmed, the upshot of this controversy may well be a more thoughtful justice able to deliver real justice for all.