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Giant Steps: Sister Sonia Joins the Supremes

by Gwendolyn Keita Robinson, Ph.D.,

Chicago, Illinois

Gwendolyn Keita Robinson, Ph.D. Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzi.
Gwendolyn Keita Robinson, Ph.D. Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzi.

SONIA SOTOMAYOR is a wise woman and I am exceedingly proud to see her become the newest Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, especially since she is, in her words, an “Affirmative Action baby.” This “admission,” caused Pat Buchanan during the nomination process, to hurl the appellation back at her through clinched teeth and fists on the Rachel Maddow Show, like an epithet reserved for enemies of the state, the status quo, and the entire “white race.” He sounded like an antediluvian news commentator gone “loco.” Obviously, in his mind, these words were supposed to make true/blue Americans recoil in horror and foam at the mouth in a Pavlovian slobber -- a reaction that would grow exponentially when combined with visions of Sotomayor “palling around” with other Puerto Ricans from the old neighborhood and supporting their uplift organizations. But fortunately, these pavlovianites do not control the semiotics of politics anymore. Some are relics of a past that helicoptered out of power when Buchanan’s mentor, Richard Nixon, left Washington a generation ago, while another contingent, the neocons, were mortally wounded when “W,” the tin-horned cowboy from Connecticut, made his exit last year, leaving behind a vice president who appears to not have gotten the transition memo. His ghost has been sited roaming around his former haunts in government, as well as several “undisclosed locations.”

Yes, Sotomayor is an “Affirmative Action baby,” but so is Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Pulitzer Prize winner, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, as well as Al Roker and a lot of other African Americans who are now familiar public figures. Whether you’re looking at Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Henry Lois Gates, Dr. Ben Carson, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Charles Ogletree, Cornel West, Governor Deval Patrick, Toni Morrison, Quincy Jones, Lena Horne, Leontyne Price, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Venus and Serena Williams, Forrest Whittaker, Jessye Norman, Harry Belafonte, Maya Angelou, Jesse Jackson, Sidney Poitier, or Halle Berry -- these are all people who occupy positions that their parents could not have due to segregation and racial discrimination. The only thing they inherited was a racial whirlwind at their backs that they used to spiral themselves upward to claim their identity as full human beings and “first-class” American citizens. Their unspoken motto was the same as Winston Churchill’s: "If you’re going through hell, keep going."

I took Judge Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” mentoring message as an attempt to convey to Generation Next Latinos that they must strive to be better than their white counterparts, or they may not make it. No one slides on the wheels of Affirmative Action to the top of the ladder. She was saying to them that Affirmative Action may have gotten me into Princeton, but it didn’t make me a summa grad -- I had to work my behind off to achieve that, and you should expect to do the same. Most successful non-white Americans have absorbed the same message, explicitly or implicitly, from their parents or other nurturers. Certainly, the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods heard it from their parents; and I have no doubt that the white mother and grandparents of young “Barry” Obama told him the same thing: you are going to have to be better than people with white skin in order to be successful, but if you work hard and apply yourself, you can be anything you want to be, including president of the United States.

“The wise crack” applies to other ethnic groups and circumstances also. When Tim Russert, of Meet the Press, met his untimely demise last year, his biography was recited at great length on the air. Everyone knew that he was very proud of his hometown and their football team -- the Buffalo Bills; as well as his ethnicity -- Irish Catholic, and his working-class family history. Big Russ and Me, a book about his sanitation worker father was a best-seller. Before coming to television, Russert had worked for Senator Pat Moynihan as his chief of staff. Reportedly, he took the job with some reservation because Moynihan had been a distinguished Harvard sociologist of great notoriety, and his staff was replete with Ivy-leaguers. Russert’s law degree was from Cleveland-Marshall, and his undergrad from the Jesuit school, John Carroll University, so Russert was initially somewhat intimidated by his boss and colleagues. But Moynihan reassured him of his value by saying: "What they know, you can learn. What you know, they can’t learn."

IN THE SAME FASHION, Sotomayor may already be one of the most qualified of all the justices past and present--because she represents real Americans who have come up “the rough side of the mountain,” and have reached the pinnacle by dent of their grit, persistence, and sagaciousness. In the entire history of the Supreme Court, there have only been two non-whites called to serve; yet, Buchanan asks us to suspend credulity by believing that this is due to all of the previous white justices being the most deserving. We know that Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Court for having argued a landmark case, Brown v. Bd. of Education, Topeka, Kansas (1954), but can anyone assert that the verbally-challenged Clarence Thomas, was anything other than the most amnesiac “Affirmative Action baby of all time?” Sotomayor and Thomas represent the polarity of Affirmative action -- the former is the capable one who just needed access to the door so she could open it with a key she already possessed, while Thomas represents the politically palatable/ideological acceptable minority with Morphean dreams of America, who denies his own past, as well as the nation’s schizoid racial history.

While the Republicans employed “identity politics” to accuse Judge Sotomayor of, well, "identity politics,” the assertion that a wise Latina woman will make better decisions than a wise white man is neither an example of this accusation, nor of ethnic or racial hubris, but rather an expression of the truism that anyone from a subordinate or subjugated class who reaches the same status of the dominant class will most likely be "wiser" because they have the "benefit" of their own experience of subjugation in addition to their study of and with the dominant group. They are the existential outsiders forced to nurture their ego and honor their culture while undergoing the transformative process of becoming “mainstream.” Just as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so does the combined strength and wisdom of the subordinate and dominant group enhance the cause of justice for all.

Yet, for Sotomayor, this “mainstream” cultural transformation retains the prayer of hope uttered in Spanish by her hardworking Puerto Rican immigrant father with a third grade education who, before he drew his last breath, surely asked "El Señor" to fulfill his children’s aspirations in America. Her transformation also incorporates the valor and strength summoned by her mother, a young widow in a strange land and hostile environment with two children to support, who persevered to put herself, and her son and daughter through nursing, medical, and law school.

Many of us in the African American community feel that Sotomayor and Obama have an anointing -- they are not only walking through doors that no one else has entered, but they are the only ones in the universe who have the keys to unlock these doors. How many South Bronx projects/Princeton (Phi Beta Kappa/summa cum laude), Yale (Law Review) Latinas do you know? Have you met any other Kansas white mother/Kenyan African father (both PhD’s)/Hawaiian-born/Harvard Law Review leader/Chicago community organizer’s? I doubt it. The philosopher/mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that not only are such sui generis personages legend, but they reflect a universal principle that applies to the uniqueness of every individual who ever lived. As my friend, historian John Bracey once told me: his grandfather would always introduce himself by first announcing his name, and then adding -- "ain’t but the one." Only a few people hear and answer the call of their cosmic name.

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR, and the president who appointed her, are 21st century Americans and citizens of the world. Look at the world, and look at America -- Pat Buchanan: what do you see? Can you say what you see? Or are you too blind to recognize the changing political demography of America that is kicking Republican butt’s all the way back to antebellum Know-Nothingism? As Mr. Obama said in London recently, we live in a complex age where a meeting between FDR and Churchill over brandy can no longer decide the world’s fate.

RACIAL minorities in America have forded a river of justice with ships piloted by men like Chief Justice Roger B. [Dred Scott] Taney who denied African Americans their civil and human rights. Perhaps those who decided Plessy v. Ferguson some forty years later believed that their Herrenvolk democratic rendering represented a step forward. But how long does it take for the “victims” of injustice to have not only their day in court, but on the court -- not in a spirit of vengeance, but in the interest of balancing the scales? After all, Pilate’s "clean hands" did not stop the crucifixion, and Caiaphas’ Sanhedrin conspired with the colonial Roman Empire to eliminate the Messiah. How long must we wait for the dominant class to relieve the disparities in the criminal justice system that result in African American men being the most incarcerated group in the world? Are we the only ones who see the black child’s pain; hear the mother’s cry, or the whimpering sound of deferred dreams, while the world looks on incredulously at a nation that ignores the plight of its human capital, but expects to remain globally competitive?

HOW LONG? Slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment in 1865, but the United States Senate literally just apologized for it a few weeks ago. This is the same Senate body in which Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (R-AL), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, queried Judge Sotomayor on her Supreme Court nomination as if being a Puertoricania made her a member of a hemispheric subspecies. But Buchanan and Sessions cannot define who we are -- we know who we are, and we also know who they are, as does Rachel Maddow, I might add, who noted that Buchanan was half a century behind the times. He lives in a time-warped dust heap of history with all of the others who have swept America’s racial transgressions under the rug, rather than seek reconciliation and redemption.

The problem with Affirmative Action for Buchanan and Sessions is that it works. It does what it set out to do -- provide opportunities for Americans who were denied access to resources and institutions because of the legacy of historical discrimination; and it seeks to remedy these “civil wrongs” by facilitating the entry and advancement of the affected classes into the civil mainstream in order to redress their grievances, eliminate their exclusion, and promote the diversity that strengthens the integrity of American democracy as a whole. Affirmative Action is about ACCESS. Without it, children from South Central LA, New Orleans' 9th Ward, and Chicago’s Westside would be consigned to second-class citizenship, prison, or worse for the rest of their lives, however short it may be. Elite institutions are designed to train leaders. Wealth affords some children -- mostly white, prep and secondary schools where they receive a solid foundation in learning skills, study habits, and core curricula. Ghetto schools, on the other hand, often have valedictorians whose main distinction may be their perfect attendance. At what point do we tap and cultivate the aptitude of these marginalized students? Are we too shortsighted to see that it is in our national interest to do so? Or will we all perish as fools, as Martin Luther King admonished, because of our inability to embrace each other as one nation under God?

BUT THERE ARE OTHER AMERICANS for whom Affirmative Action policies have worked, despite the fact that political expediency, and/or limited consciousness and commitment may have caused some of them to denigrate and disparage such programs. For example, Barbara Walters’ much-celebrated ascent to the ABC co-anchor post is consistent with the expansion in women’s employment and upward mobility in jobs across the board as a consequence of the civil rights movement. Johnson’s Executive Order 11246, which established the principle for Affirmative Action in 1965, was amended two years later by E.O. 11375 in order to include women. [Parenthetically, these developments were occurring at a time when one-third of the Puerto Rican female population was being sterilized in a well-documented eugenics program.] An examination of the record will show that Walters, and other white women have been the greatest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action, according to the Department of Labor; yet the stigma of the policy seems to only taint racial minorities who, as Census predictions advise, are fast becoming the majority of America’s population. Given this history and prognosis, why should we countenance justice being meted out by a “whites only” Supreme Court, Associate Justice Thomas notwithstanding?

THESE ARE TOUGH TIMES, and certainly there are whites who are disadvantaged, and have been for generations, like many Appalachians, who I believe deserve their own Affirmative Action program. But whites in America have generally benefitted from a skin color privilege that accrues to them regardless of their origins or circumstances. African Americans, on the other hand, have experienced a skin color taxation, that has denied them equal access to resources that other Americans take for granted -- housing, schools, jobs, healthcare, recreational facilities, retail establishments, board rooms, and social clubs. Today African Americans have a net worth that is only 7 cents to every dollar owned by whites, while Latinos own just 2 cents more. The black unemployment rate hovers around 15%, with one-quarter of black households living below the poverty line. A recent study cited by CNN indicates that the current subprime crisis has caused people of color to lose a staggering $72 BILLION DOLLARS over the past eight years, which represents the "greatest loss of wealth of [such persons] in American history.” Affirmative action is one way of addressing this economic apartheid, not just for the sake of racial parity, but because it promotes the economic viability of the society at a time when the U.S. struggles to reverse its status as the world’s largest debtor nation; and fewer people are contributing to the retirement and healthcare expenses of an aging “boomer” population. Since lower taxes is one of the treasured components of the Republican’s canonical “three-legged stool,” maybe they should try to attract more African Americans by lowering the skin-color tax, and adopting an economic program that promotes prosperity for all Americans. And if their goal is a color-blind society, the criminal-justice system would be an appropriate starting point to demonstrate their good faith.

AS WE STAND in the dawn’s early light of a new day in America that begins to recognize and respect the struggles, triumphs, and sacrifices of all the people who make up this nation, Sonia Sotomayor is, for many of us, the JUSTICE and vessel of freedom that we have been waiting for. Unlike the Statue of Liberty and the symbol and symbolism of Lady Justice, her life is a meditation on justice as applied possibility. She is the American dream’s Bronx Bomber, who achieved success via an anatomically different route from "Jenny on the block." She is the beatitude that promises the meek that they will inherit the earth; and a source of inspiration that, as Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy said -- summoning the words of a Chinese proverb, would rather "light candles than curse the darkness."

SOTOMAYOR is the canary entering the mine -- her future is our future; her survival is our survival, and our survival in the global community depends on the practice of democracy, not just its contemplation as a theoretical abstraction, or one that works for some, but not all. She represents a giant [a la Coltrane] step towards a more perfect union, built on polytonic "sheets of sound" that press the harmonics of democracy higher and higher into new realms that shed discordant memories in order to enhance our song of liberation as a nation, and drown out the cacophony of "identity politics" in the process. But in the meantime, Sister Sonia, "us homies got your back."

Gwen Keita Robinson is a native of Mobile, Alabama and was educated in the public schools of Chicago. She received her doctorate in American History from the University of Illinois at Chicago; and holds a certificate in Community Development from John Marshall Law School. She has served on the faculty at Big Ten and Ivy League institutions, and as a curator at the Smithsonian. She lectures widely, and has been a historical and museological consultant on numerous projects, including the Emmy-Nominated video documentary, “Ties that Bind,” that brought Chicago’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities together through their African American, Hispanic, and Euro-American women spiritual leaders.

She is a past president of the Chicago Area Association for Affirmative Action and Compliance; and was a founding staff member and host of the jazz radio program, Giant Steps, on WRFG-FM, a community-based, listener-supported radio station in Atlanta, where she also directed the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Third World Peace Education Project and served on AFSC’s Third World Coalition National Committee.

Dr. Robinson can be contacted by email at:

Published in In Motion Magazine August 25, 2009

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