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.
  • http://blog.jonolan.net jonolan

    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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  • http://www.postbourgie.com shani-o
  • http://www.myspace.com/quixotic4 G.D.

    The whole speech is here. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/us/politics/15judge.text.html

    There’s no sensible way to read that line as racist in context; she was specifically speaking to how women judges have ruled differently than male judges in sex discrimination cases, as have minority judges in civil rights cases.

  • Molly

    enh, not that anyone noticed my comment, but forget I said all this…I changed my mind…

  • http://blog.jonolan.net jonolan

    Not much of a conflation there, young_; if you’re making decisions based upon someone’s race, you’re a racist. It’s the Liberals who have conveniently (mis)defined racism as prejudice + power, making it a “White problem,” in an attempt to further their own agenda.

  • quadmoniker

    She didn’t say she made decisions based on people’s race. In a speech discussing race and sex discrimination cases, she said she thought a Latina woman would come to a better conclusion than a white man. You can have a problem with that if you want, but you have to be accurate about what she said.

  • ladyfresh

    I see how the old definition would be convenient for some. I’d note that since history moves definitions back and forth for the convenience of those in power. this definition was moved in the opposite direction a more interesting one. This was likely done for a specific reason(er you term it ‘an agenda’) while it could have been liberals who enhanced the definition the reasoning is quite valid and thought out. I note you are leaving out possible reasons why this was done it seems to me that it is being put into play with this particular nomination. Here is a thought out explanation to the added definition of power + prejudice:

    …that racism extends considerably beyond prejudiced beliefs. The essential feature of racism is not hostility or misperception, but rather the defense of a system from which advantage is derived on the basis of race. The manner in which the defense is articulated – either with hostility or subtlety – is not nearly as important as the fact that it insures the continuation of a privileged relationship. Thus it is necessary to broaden the definition of racism beyond prejudice to include sentiments that in their consequence, if not in their intent, support the racial status quo.
    David T. Wellman, Portraits of White Racism, Second Edition

    I’d argue that fears of loss of power instigated the current cries of (‘reverse’)racism and unfortunately the response to these cries are less than enthusiastic, not because of it’s lack of proper definition, but because of the now more subtle plays of racism in our society esp with regards to status quo.

    Additionally i concur with Quad that She didn’t say she made decisions based on people’s race. and her long and qualified record actually proves this.