Race-Colored Glasses: Seeing What's There

Instead of criticizing Judge Sotomayor for seeing race in America, we should be asking: Why don't the rest of us?
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Even if it's a fairly done deal that Judge Sotomayor will be confirmed to the Supreme Court, Republicans are explicitly using her nomination as a "teachable moment" about the role of race in America. Yet Sotomayor, President Obama and the Democrats are trying their best to avoid talking about race rather than responding head on -- which only cedes this critical debate conservatives who justify racial bias under the guise of colorblindness. Instead of sidestepping the conversation on race and trying to change the topic, Democrats and progressives should use this as our own teachable moment for ourselves and the nation. Instead of criticizing Judge Sotomayor for seeing race in America, we should be asking: Why don't the rest of us?

The area of the South Bronx where Sonia Sotomayor grew up, in the poorest urban county in the United States, is predominantly African American and Latino. In the Bronx, African American and Latino children are more likely to be arrested and tried as adults than White kids who commit the same acts, even though kids of color are ultimately found innocent at higher rates than White kids. The average household income is $29,000; a few miles away in mostly-White Manhattan, it's $56,000. Only 16% of Bronx adults have gone to college; in Manhattan it's 57%. Less than 20% of Bronx families own their home, one of the lowest homeownership rates in the country. In the 1990s, New York City unilaterally relocated sewage treatment facilities and waste transfer stations to the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. Rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity are far greater in the South Bronx than in comparable, White communities.

Nationwide, 16% of White children go to sleep hungry. Among African American children, the rate is almost 42%. Studies show that African Americans and Latinos are less likely to be hired for a job than Whites and when they are hired, they're paid less than White people doing the same work. The average White family has $88,651 in net worth. The average Latino family is worth only $7,932. African American families are worth only $5,998.

Statistics like these are evidence of the pernicious persistence of racial inequality in every aspect of our society. Racism in America is neither isolated nor aberrant, nor is it an invention to excuse what might be attributable to individuals or cultural behaviors. We White people often use Barack Obama's success as evidence that if other people of color simply tried, they too could succeed -- arguing that racism is a myth. We should draw the opposite, more accurate conclusion instead: the fact that so many people of color are as talented and ambitious as President Obama but do not achieve his level of success is proof that other, systemic barriers must be in their way.

The first corporation established in the new, free market America was the slave trading Virginia Corporation. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that "all men are created equal" and established the structures of our government, owned dozens of slaves. Private and parochial schools, and now vouchers, became popular as public schools became integrated. As the Black middle class grew and African American families bought homes in middle class urban neighborhoods, White families fled and created the suburbs. Private health insurance and private hospitals grew as funding was cut for public health systems that served mostly low-income people of color. Yet we pretend that each of these institutions has nothing to do with race and that the economic inequality or lack of democratic participation that plagues communities of color is mere coincidence, or even the fault of communities themselves, rather than the inevitable product of highly racialized design. Despite a national history that has been profoundly colored by color, which has compounded gulfs of privilege and inequality over generations, we have repeatedly bought the lie that race does not matter in America.

The very fact that Judge Sotomayor's personal story of triumph, from the housing projects of the South Bronx to Princeton and Yale, to federal judge, seems so remarkable reveals our deep, hidden expectations of what is possible and probable for people of color in America.

There's a reason we call judges judges. We expect them to also use their judgment. Judge Sotomayor's judgment is indeed different because she is Latina, just as she is a different judge because she grew up poor, was a district attorney, was a trial judge, lives in a city. In a legal system designed to protect the powerless from the tyranny of the powerful, wouldn't it be nice to have a judge who understands how the abuse of power can hurt communities? And wouldn't it be nice to acknowledge the reality of race that is all around us rather than attacking those for seeing what is clearly there? A deep and personal experience of racial bias is far more valuable to our society -- and our Supreme Court -- than denial. And while confirming Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is critical, arguably using this moment to teach about the continuing role of race in our society is equally as important.

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