Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Individual vs. Member of a Group

By Thomas Kochman - 06.02.2009

One of the hurdles that Sonia Sotomayor has to contend with as a Latina, is the view that makes individual qualifications suspect to the extent that ethnicity and gender were factors in her selection. Characterizing her nomination as an “affirmative action pick” as Pat Buchanan did on MSNBC does just that.

The problem with this view is that it has become near impossible in the larger society for anyone other than a white man to be seen first and foremost as an individual and not first and foremost as a member of a race, gender, or ethnic group. So even if a white woman or person of color were best qualified for a position the fact that they are primarily seen as members of a group inevitably calls their individual qualifications into question.

Another battle facing Sonia Sotomayor is the implication that insofar as her ethnicity and gender factor into her thinking and the kind of decisions she makes her impartiality gets called into question. As Richard Gaskins said \”Why, every time an [ethnic minority] comes into an office or a situation of making decisions for our country, do we get concerned about will they show favoritism?\” Joseph Condon of Richmond, Virginia, was even more explicit, writing, \”If Sotomayor is confirmed, her personal experiences, liberal beliefs, and loyalty to blood and culture will be the basis for forming her judicial rulings, and not the United States Constitution,\”

Sotomayor herself has said personal experiences \”affect the facts that judges choose to see,” adding, \”I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging,\” she said in a speech in 2001. \”But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.\”

What’s different however, is that Sotomayor’s statement not only challenges the view that her ethnicity and gender constitute a negative but the whole idea that judges, or anyone else for that matter, are not influenced by their personal experiences in what “they choose to see.”  An even more compelling notion that is receiving more and more attention and weight is that differences in race, ethnicity and gender are value added (as offering a different perspective and sensibility than that which a white man might provide, for example, owing to their different social experience and cultural background).

As Sotomayor said in a speech to a Hispanic group in 2001, \”I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn\’t lived that life.\” As Frank Forrester, a lifelong Republican who switched parties to vote for Obama, says, diversity is a valuable attribute for the court to have. \”She brings a different perspective than a bunch of old white guys, and I think that\’s a relevant thing. You know, I\’m a white guy, but I think to have a different perspective, to understand the perspectives of different kinds of people, is relevant.\”

This is also the view we take in our diversity training and why we think interview panels as well as other assessment forums should be diverse with respect to race, ethnicity and gender insofar as they allow for a richer mix of diverse views that can come from members of any one group alone.

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