I could not help but be struck by the juxtaposition of two events in the press the past few days (July 15-17): the nomination hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor and the obituary of historian Kenneth Stampp.
I first read Kenneth Stampp’s ground-breaking work, The Peculiar Institution, (l956), in a history class at Stanford in 1958. I did not realize at the time how courageous the book was in confronting the prevailing winds of white U.S. historians who collectively overlooked, downplayed, or even “white washed” the hideous and absolute immorality of slavery. Stampp laid much of the ground work for succeeding generations of historians to demonstrate conclusively that slavery made it virtually impossible for African-Americans to enjoy any of the blessings of America for generations and, furthermore, deprived slaves who were “emancipated” in 1863 of any stake in the American dream.
For hundreds of years, whole generations of white families amassed wealth and passed it on to their offspring; fragmented black families made no generational gains at all. Today, the results of that manifest is what is referred to as “the achievement gap.”
To witness Southern beneficiaries of the racial divides in America questioning another member of a deprived racial group in America and suggesting that somehow she is, in reverse, a “racist” is not only ludicrous to the extreme, it is also ignorant and cynical.
Listening to Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama trying to impugn the intellect and integrity of Sonia Sotomayor was like watching Sarah Palin discussing U.S. foreign relations with Russia. Observing these two white senators from the South, with all its profoundly racist history and their own records of anti-civil rights, was a stunning lesson in hypocrisy and chutzpah.
Sonia Sotomayor’s shortcomings seem to be that she believes a “wise Latina” might bring more wisdom to a given issue than a white male. Well, I would hope so. And her other transgression is to suggest that empathy might play a role in the legal deliberation process. Wow.
Fortunately, the American public seems to have been able to sort out the pure nonsense as well as the ideological camouflages of these two senators’ interrogations of the judge. It remains to be seen what kind of a Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor will become. But it is clear that the wisdom of a Kenneth Stampp will not be lost upon her. Her own history and the uphill climb Latinos have faced and continue to face, as well as the tragic legacy of slavery for black Americans, will certainly reform her future decisions and will, many hope, help to remedy a shameful and enduring divide in what America promises and what it provides. This disparity has escaped the understanding of Judge Sotomayor’s soon-to-be colleague Clarence Thomas, who seems oblivious to his own history. Presumably, she will not be so blind. In Thomas’ case, it is not that he is color-blind in a laudatory fashion; it is that he fails to acknowledge the degree to which affirmative action (as well as a cynical “stick-it-to-us” decision by G.W. Bush) has benefited and helped him overcome the historical chains that continue to bind impoverished minorities in America.
So here’s to Judge Sonia Sotomayor and to President Barak Obama, they truly represent what is hopeful in America and what the American dream might offer for future generations if that future is approached with empathy and wisdom.