As talking heads buzzed with news of President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, there has also been a flurry of commentary. Is her selection tokenizing? Is it triumphant? Is she smart enough? Is she nice enough? I don’t think it’s particularly useful to parse the commentary on Judge Sotomayor specifically — a lot of the back and forth parallels and reproduces the tropes that come out in any discussion addressing privilege and remediation.
The same day, a relatively lengthy commentary previewed on NPR’s morning edition. It argued that while Obama’s nomination was a triumph (if successful, Sotomayor will be the first woman of color and first Latina on the Court), the President should examine other forms of diversity on the bench. Specifically, he should appoint an LGBT Justice, next.
Generally, I’ve found this kind of conversation incredibly reductionist. While it is incredibly powerful, and meaningful, to see a fraction of the Nation’s diversity represented on the high court, there’s also been a deeply tokenizing conversation about what diversity means and what it looks like. The rush to suggest community-specific appointments sounds like everyone is making a run on a huge sale at the mall — get your diversity now, or you’ll never get the opportunity to have it again.
This kind of framework also discounts, and ignores, a larger concern around representation (figurative/symbolic) and representation (civic). I fully acknowledge that SES is highly racialized and gendered; nonetheless, what makes Judge Sotomayor compelling, to me, is that her experience as a young woman is rooted in the same experience of a large swathe of society who is overrepresented in the harms of “legal justice” yet underrepresented in the analysis, framework, and design of legal policy.
Diversity on the bench should not be like a Baskin Robbins, where you get to pick a flavor of the day. This approach risks ranking and prioritizing which minority communities should be elevated or further passed over instead of asking harder questions of whether an individual on the bench provides the kind of civic representation required to validate and integrate communities into the larger fabric of the country. It also gives the impression that unless “someone from your team” is on the Supreme Court, your concerns will not receive deference or kindness. Such an approach would be a huge disappointment for the court.
I can safely say that my first reaction after Judge Sotomayor’s nomination was not to self-righteously demand Sikhs be elevated, next. But it did make me reflect on how we, as a community, evaluate and hold our judiciaary responsible to our concerns as people of faith who often also encounter the additional experience/risk of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. What should we be doing to ensure that our interests are validated and given consideration in light of the fact that we do not necessarily have our own Sotomayor (yet)?