A Word on Empathy.

(x-posted from here.)

Judging from jonolan’s comment on a previous post, it’s probably reasonable to assume that conservatives will, in their criticism of Sotomayor, zero in on this line from a lecture she recently gave:

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.

That one’s experiences – and thus ability to understand certain situations – are shaped by one’s identity is a fairly unremarkable and pedestrian sentiment.  Indeed, this is largely what Obama means when he says that he’s looking for a judge with “empathy.”  The simple fact is that a court dominated by white men will have a hard time looking beyond their circumstance to understand the problems faced by women or minorities.  It’s no coincidence that the Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only justice to articulate a compelling dissent to the Court’s ruling in Redding v. Stafford; as a former 13-year-old girl herself, Ginsburg was the only justice who seemed to understand the humiliation involved in being forced to strip to one’s underwear.  To borrow from Dahlia Lithwick, “Nobody but Ginsburg seems to comprehend that the only locker rooms in which teenage girls strut around, bored but fabulous in their underwear, are to be found in porno movies. For the rest of us, the middle-school locker room was a place for hastily removing our bras without taking off our T-shirts.”

On a court where the majority of justices empathize with the powerful and protected over the marginalized and weak, it.s critical that we have someone who can find common cause with the latter over the former.  Besides, as Neil Sinhababu correctly notes, it’s not as if Supreme Court justices rarely rules on these issues; these are areas on which the Court regularly offers a judgment, and “an ability to understand other people’s lives” is important to making the fairest decisions possible.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Some will indeed. I started to myself, since Sotomayor’s comment – as it is presented – was plainly and bluntly both racist and sexist – that was until I got a chance to reread it in the context of whole discussion which changed the emphasis of her statement to one of experience bringing practical wisdom.

  • slg

    Yes, Jamelle, please look up the context of that speech…makes a big difference.

  • Molly

    Are we alluding to her ability to empathize with LGBT couples? I am a little worried that her empathy may be limited in scope, not unlike Sandra Day O’Connor…

  • coward

    Where can I find the entire speech?

  • young_

    Yeah, a lot of the conservative uproar just seems like disingenuous gotcha politics but I also suspect that a lot of it probably comes from people who just don’t have a coherent understanding of what it means to “be racist.” A lot of conservatives seem to (conveninently) conflate not being color-blind with being racist.

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