Tuesday, May 26, 2009
The big news today was Barack Obama's announcement of his selection of Sonia Sotomayor as a nominee for the Supreme Court. I'm not enthusiastic about picking people for any position solely because of their minority status, in terms of race, gender, sexuality, or any other categories. Fortunately (and no surprise to me), from the looks of Sonia Sotomayor's educational and professional background, she's eminently qualified to advance to the Supreme Court.
Less fortunately, the leading indicators of Sotomayor's professional background are less promising, at least for me. It appears that another Democratic president has nominated another moderate centrist, a judge who's unlikely to do as much as I'd like in terms of countering the far-right justices appointed by Republican presidents. (Why is it that Republicans consistently manage to appoint justices who are relatively extreme, compared to those appointed by Democrats?)
Nevertheless, appearances do matter, and I appreciate how Sotomayor's likely presence on the court will help to break up a glacier of sorts in the white American imagination--the conception of race in America in largely black-and-white terms, and the accompanying conception of Hispanic/Latino Americans, and others, as outsiders.
Latinos have always been a part of America, and many were here before the United States even existed (before, that is, the U.S. basically stole a huge chunk of Mexico in the Mexican-American War). Nevertheless, white Americans in general still think of Latin Americans, like the members of other groups, as somehow un-American.
It may be obvious to point out that America has more than two racial groups, and that huge numbers of Latin Americans have been American citizens for many generations. But then, many white Americans have yet to realize that Hispanic/Latino Americans have surpassed African Americans in demographic terms to become the largest minority.
When white Americans hear such terms as "race," racism," "race relations" and so on, they still usually think "black people," and then, sometimes, "white people." When they do think of people in Sotomayor's racial/ethnic group, exclusionary terms come to mind instead of racial ones -- "Mexican," "migrant worker," "illegal alien," and so on.
A similarly exclusionary effect is imposed on other groups as well. As many Asian Americans point out time and time again, people have been coming to America from Asia since at least the 1700s, and yet, white Americans still tend to think of them as "perpetual foreigners." For instance, when they ask an Asian American the common conversation-starter, "Where are you from?" what they actually mean is, "Where are you or your ancestors from?" Which really means, "When I look at you, I don't fully see you as an American."
As many Arab Americans have pointed out, the white American imagination is slow to think of them as Americans as well. When most whites in the U.S. do think of race beyond the black/white binary, they still think in terms of what historian David Hollinger long ago labeled the "ethno-racial pentagon": Asian American; white/Euro-American; black/African American; "Indian"/Native American; and Hispanic/Latin American. There's no place in this conception of race among American citizens for Arab Americans, a gap which has made it all that much easier to demonize them as irrational, America-hating terrorists.
"Indigenous people," as that term implies, were this continent's first people, but many white Americans don't immediately think of them either when they hear the words "race" or "race relations." When white people do think beyond black and white about indigenous people, they tend to think of them in romanticized, archaic terms, which are brought to mind primarily by media-generated images of shaman, buffalo-hunters, medicine men, Indian princesses and sports mascots.
Again, it may seem to go without saying that in addition to white and black people, these other people are Americans too. And to most white Americans, that statement actually would be obvious.
But there's also a way, a sort of subconscious way, in which that statement is not obvious to the collective white imagination. No matter how much white Americans like to think of themselves as free-floating, independently minded individuals, they are a part of, and deeply influenced by, that larger collective consciousness. And that collective consciousness still leads many of them to think of race in America in simplistic, dichotomous, and damaging terms.
As Nicole Shaffer points out, "The trouble with the Black/White binary paradigm of 'race relations' in the United States is that it works to obscure the racialization of other groups and the resulting experiences of discrimination." Seeing groups outside of this binary as somehow "un-American" makes it all that much easier to condone or commit racist abuse against them.
The occupation of highly visible positions of power by people like Sonia Sotomayor, people who are not black or white, may seem like a mere surface matter. In some ways, it is merely that, and again, I personally wish that Obama had chosen someone with apparent sympathies, understandings and judgments that lie further to the left than Sotomayor's apparently do.
But, in terms of moving the white American imagination beyond the black-and-white binary, so that white Americans become more accepting, sympathetic, and respectful towards all American citizens, the highly public consignment of power to people like Sonia Sotomayor could help to bring about a seismic shift in white conceptions about who does and does not count as "American." Surface appearances can be a superficial thing, but I also think they matter, and that they do so in profound, fundamental ways.
For another take on common white reactions to Obama's nominee, I recommend Chauncey DeVega's post at We Are Respectable Negroes.