On Racism | Sojourners

On Racism

Many in the Republican Party and some noteworthy Christian leaders have come together to call Judge Sotomayor a racist. This rhetoric compounds with other recent statements -- support for torture, opposition to hate speech legislation (note: not opposition to hate speech, but to legislation restricting hate speech), ongoing denial of environmental crisis and climate change, and so on.

As Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons made clear in their important book UnChristian, this kind of talk -- and the viewpoints and theology from which it springs -- have created an extremely negative stereotype of the Christian faith over recent decades, especially among young people, who are leaving the church in record numbers. You would think this information would have gotten out to many of these religious leaders -- and that, if for no other reason than not wanting to drive the young away from their religious communities, they would at least be more careful and sensitive. But no, they are continuing on the same course ... adding more fuel to the stereotypical fire that Christians are judgmental, insensitive, reactive, more ideological than theological, and so on.

Yes, their rhetoric (which you can read about and find links to here) reflects badly on these Christians themselves. But sadly, it also reflects badly on the rest of us Christians and on the Christian faith in general. If the rest of us are silent, and unless more of us speak up to distinguish our position from theirs, nobody can blame others for assuming our silence means tacit agreement.

That's one reason why I continue to be outspoken about these matters. I take no pleasure in criticizing anyone, including my fellow Christians. But I must simply say that these voices don't speak for me, nor do they speak for thousands of people I meet in my travels. Their words and attitudes grieve me, and I would be ashamed of myself if I did not speak up and publicly and respectfully differ. I hope others will do the same.

Regarding the outrage expressed by white Christian leaders and politicians about Judge Sotomayor, and their allegations that she is a racist ... I decided to read the speech from which the supposedly offensive lines were taken. Since I have had spokespeople like these take my words out of context, I suspected they may have done the same to the judge. You can read the whole speech here (I recommend it strongly), but here are three key paragraphs:

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.

Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Others simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

By wrenching one sentence out of context (the last sentence of the first quoted paragraph), these spokespeople are making it sound like the judge believes white males always make inferior decisions. (Conservative blogger Rod Dreher drew this conclusion based on that one sentence, but changed his opinion when he read the whole speech. His retraction is a great example of the kind of character and wisdom people wish they could see more of in public discourse.)

But it's clear, after reading her speech in its entirety, that her critics are distorting her meaning -- whether through ignorance, carelessness, or maliciousness, I can't say. She's suggesting that a court of nine white males alone, regardless of their education and training, nevertheless lack the experience of seeing life from the perspective of a non-male or non-white. If those white males don't (as she says later) "take the time and effort" to "understand the experiences of others," or if they "simply do not care," or if they fail to "extrapolate" from their experience to experiences with which they are unfamiliar, their decisions will carry the limited bias of their white male background. In that way, those decisions will be less wise.

In other words, she's saying that a monochrome and mono-gender group brings its own experiences, unconscious biases, and limitations to the table, and without alternative perspectives (each of which has its own biases and experiences), its homogeneity is inferior to the greater wisdom that arises from diversity. The outraged response of many white male Christian and political leaders to her statement seems to demonstrate her very point.

My fellow white people, and white males especially, would do well to do some research about white privilege. If you want to start with a strongly-worded, "gloves-off" blog post from a non-white non-male, written during the election season last year, this is a good place to begin. If the blog post makes you angry, may I suggest you re-read these words from Judge Sotomayor:

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Others simply do not care.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a speaker and author who is always behind in answering emails. His next book (March 2010) will be called "A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That are Transforming the Faith." He is also the author of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.