Racism and Supreme Court Qualifications

| | Comments (0)

I came across a pretty good discussion of several of the bad arguments for and against Judge Sotomayor's nomination by Jonathan Turley. I recommend the whole thing, but one statement by him got my attention.

He says something that led me to compare an interesting phenomenon that arises with both Justice Thomas and Judge Sotomayor involving race. There are those who are happy that Judge Sotomayor is a Latina and will support her nomination for that reason alone, ignoring anything else. Then there are those on the left like Turley who would have preferred someone with more intellectual heft. On the right, there are those like me who are happy enough that Obama has nominated someone who by most reports will do little to move the Court to the left from where it currently is (and on some issues may well move it somewhat to the right, although on some issues we don't have any clue, and she could be far left for all we know). Then there are those on the right who have also pointed out that she's gotten some negative reviews in terms of her intellect, claiming that she's an affirmative action pick who is being chosen not because she's qualified but because she's Latina, sometimes even with the suggestion that she's unqualified.

So on both sides of the political spectrum we get objections that she's not an intellectual heavyweight. Turley is right to point out that this is not the same as saying she's stupid, as some have claimed these critics to be saying. Maybe some of them are, but Turley thinks she's quite smart but just not an intellectual heavyweight whose depth of understanding of the law and the historical background of the legal questions would shift legal opinion in significant ways, e.g. as Justice Scalia has done on the right and as Justice Brennan did on the left in the latter half of the 20th century. Such a statement is consistent with recognizing her intelligence as pretty high.

Then there's a third category. There are those who claim the statements about her intelligence are due to racism. She's Latina, so they must be assuming she's dumb. You find this on the right too, particularly when people criticize Justice Thomas. Senator Harry Reid, for instance, despite admitting to never having read an opinion by Jusice Thomas, was happy to spout off the general wisdom of the left that his opinions aren't very well-written, and I regularly see and hear comments about how he's not all that smart and just looks to Justice Scalia for guidance about what to do. Anyone who has spent much time looking at his opinions and anyone who has heard him speak would never hesitate to consider him to be a pretty intelligent person.

So what about the racist charge? Is it racist to say that someone is dumb when the person happens to be non-white? Of course not. Your reasons for thinking someone is unintelligent may be despite great reluctance to say such a thing of a non-white person in the public eye. You might genuinely think the evidence supports it, or you may trust the opinion of someone else who reported to you that someone is unintelligent. I think it's pretty immoral to call someone a racist merely because they happen to think someone who is non-white isn't very bright. There are, after all, people who aren't white who aren't that bright. I've tutored for some of the athletic teams at my university. Some of the students on those teams are very good academically, and others should never have made it into college. Some of those who never should have been accepted happen not to be white. They struggle to understand pretty basic philosophical concepts that most freshmen pick up pretty readily. It's racist to assume someone is dumb just because the person is black or Hispanic, but it isn't racist to conclude that someone who happens to be black or Hispanic is of low intelligence after becoming aware of actual evidence that the person is of low intellifence.

Nevertheless, I think there's something that these critics have right. I think there's a very strong presumption in individual cases of not accusing someone of wrongdoing or evil motives when there isn't strong evidence that they are ill-intentioned or doing wrong. Therefore, I think it's wrong to throw around racism charges for everyone who, for all you know, might be operating based on racist assumptions. Racist assumptions would explain how someone might conclude that someone who managed to graduate top of her class at Princeton University might be stupid. Racist assumptions similarly would explain how someone might say the same about the justice who managed to convince Justice Scalia to become more judicially conservative than he already was because of some pretty innovative and out-of-favor reasons that it hadn't even occurred to Scalia to consider. But to assume that racism is at work in any particular case violates the principle of charity that we ought to take in cases where we don't really know if someone is being downright evil in the way we're inclined to accuse them of being.

Such a strong presumption is for individual cases when we're ignorant of the details, perhaps even relevant ones about a person's inner life. That's consistent with recognizing that a claim is too ludicrous to be perpetuated so easily and frequently by people who should know better when we rarely see such claims about men who are nominated or serving on the Supreme Court. That might lead us to wonder if there is some kind of racist stereotype being perpetuated. In this case, I don't think it would be that Judge Sotomayor is being assumed by anyone to be unintelligent because she's Latina, but I wonder if some people among those who say this are more likely to believe such a claim when made about a Latina than they would if it were made about a man, especially a white man.

I certainly think something of the sort is going on with Justice Thomas. In his case, there's also the prevailing assumption by many on the left, especially blacks on the left, that no intelligent black person could support some of the things Justice Thomas supports. I think there's a different kind of racism there, in particular an assumption that black people must all think alike to be smart, a standard white people aren't expected to meet to count as smart. I think lots of my philosophical colleagues have false views about important matters, often so false as to be ludicrous. It may even be that these views lead them to do things that are clearly against their best interests. I rarely find myself tempted to think they're stupid for holding such views. But blacks on the left routinely question the intelligence of black conservatives for holding views that they find impossible to square with their own sense of what's in the best interest of blacks.

Thus there's a disparity of treatment between what might lead someone to conclude someone is unintelligent, and it does indeed have to do with race. I count that as a racist assumption. So I don't think this is just looking at him, seeing he's a paradigm example of the darker blacks who are more likely to be assumed to be less intelligent, and concluding that he must therefore be dumb. But the narrative about his lower intelligence and how he's basically Justice Scalia's house slave does seem to me to have some of its underlying plausibility amplified by a racist assumption, and it may well be easier for some people to accept it without argument (and there's indeed no decent argument for it) than they would for a white justice.

So I suspect there is racism involved in the creation and perpetuation of that narrative, thus making it a racist narrative. The same may well be going on with Judge Sotomayor, even if I would never accuse any particular person of contributing to the narrative in this particularly racist way unless I had strong evidence that the person's motivations were actually racist.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04