Saturday, June 6, 2009

Lazy Stereotyping and Coverage of Sotomayor

We’ve seen the criticisms leveled at Judge Sotomayor before. In fact, they correspond strikingly with traditional American stereotypes of Latin Americans. In 1940, the Office of Public Opinion Research conducted a poll where respondents were given a card with 19 terms on it. They were asked to choose which term(s) best described Latin Americans. The results were as follows:

Dark-Skinned (80%)
Quick-tempered (49%)
Emotional (47%)
Religious (45%)
Backwards (44%)
Lazy (41%)
Ignorant (34%)
Suspicious (32%)
Friendly (30%)
Dirty (28%)
Proud (26%)
Imaginative (23%)
Shrewd (16%)
Intelligent (15%)
Honest (13%)
Brave (12%)
Generous (12%)
Progressive (11%)
Efficient (5%)
No answer (4%)
No opinion (0%)

A quick scan of major news outlets reveals that, 69 years later, commentators from across the political spectrum still trot out the same stereotypes to criticize Sotomayor.

The old stereotype that Latin Americans lack intelligence manifests itself today in questions about Judge Sotomayor’s qualifications, intelligence, and, writing ability. Despite her Bronx to Princeton to Yale Law pedigree and almost 11 years of service on the Court of Appeals, Ponnuru labeled her “Obama’s Harriet Miers.” Rove put it a bit more straightforwardly (at about :40) on Fox News: “I’m not really certain how intellectually strong she would be…she has not been very strong on the Second Circuit.” On the left, Turley posits that she doesn’t have the “intellectual throw weight to make a difference on the court.” And Liptak argues that her opinions lack some sort of rhetorical flair. They “reveal no larger vision, seldom appeal to history and consistently avoid quotable language.” Instead, they’re merely “technical, incremental and exhaustive,” as if these three adjectives combine to form a slur.

The characterization of Sotomayor as “quick-tempered” and “emotional” has been brought up time and time again, though it is generally couched as an issue of “temperament.” In the New York Times, Becker and Liptak called Sotomayor “sharp-tongued and occasionally combative,” echoing Rosen’s anonymous sources, who described her as “kind of a bully on the bench” and “domineering during oral arguments, but her questions aren’t penetrating.” Deeper within their article, however, Becker and Liptak point out that “some observers” claim her “blunt” style might actually help her stand up to Scalia. So she’s either an angry Latina or potentially “an able politician on the Supreme Court,” but an article casting her as the former makes for better headlines.

The deeper one delves into the blogosphere, the more ridiculous the arguments become. Over at the National Review Blog Corner, Krikorian offers a laughable criticism: by retaining the Spanish “So-toe-my-OR” emphasis on the last syllable of her name, Sotomayor is “insisting [up]on an unnatural pronunciation.” Apparently, this “is something we shouldn’t be giving in to,” because when choosing a proper pronunciation of your last name, Anglicized “conformity is appropriate.” Notice both the “we” versus them distinction and the implication that her “unnatural” pronunciation of her own last name is “backwards.” And finally, without a readily available Latin American stereotype, how does the most recent National Review cover (top of post) depict Sotomayor the “Wise Latina?” Easy. It slants her eyes and makes her Buddhist.

Politically, these off-base stereotypes are unlikely to gain much traction. Senate Republicans appear unwilling to launch extreme personal attacks on Sotomayor, if only because they cannot afford to lose more Hispanic votes. For example, Senators Sessions, Hatch, and Cornyn all pointedly disagreed with Gingrich’s claim that she is a “racist.” Nonetheless, it’s still troubling that these stereotypes arise in this context. On so many levels, Sotomayor is a historic nomination to the Supreme Court, yet many commentators just want to discuss whether she’s too feisty.

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