Why Sonia Sotomayor was talking about race in the first place.

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June 4 2009 11:02 AM

The Invitation You Can't Refuse

Why Sonia Sotomayor was talking about race in the first place.

Photograph of Sonia Sotomayor.
Sonia Sotomayor

With each new law job I've started, at some point the e-mail arrives: "Invitation to Join the Diversity Committee." It's a workday reminder that not only am I a woman, but I'm a member of an ethnic minority and, as such, a rare commodity in the legal profession. If I don't reply, I unfailingly receive a follow-up call, inquiring why I haven't responded—underscoring the subtle point that as one of the few examples of an "ethnic" attorney, my refusal to join the committee would be noticed. I willingly accept the invitation, spend the occasional lunch hour discussing recruitment, talk on career panels, engage in conversations about race that don't happen elsewhere in the workplace. The e-mail from the diversity committee is the invitation that can't be refused.

I was reminded of this when reading Judge Sonia Sotomayor's much-discussed keynote from the 2001 Honorable Mario G. Olmos Law & Cultural Diversity Memorial Lecture at Berkeley's law school, aka the "wise Latina" speech. The symposium was titled "Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation," and Sotomayor's invite came from a Latina law school classmate and from Judge Olmos' widow, friends, and family. It was an invitation that could not be lightly refused. But in this political climate, an invitation to speak for half an hour about race in America—like an invitation to talk for 30 minutes about abortion or gay marriage or any other polarizing issue—is an invitation to provide fodder for opposition research.

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Recent years have seen a depressing pattern in which notable "ethnic" political figures— from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on down—end up having to extricate themselves from the tangles of racial politics, defending themselves from charges of "reverse racism," "identity politics," or the like. This may have much to do with the fact that, unlike their "nonethnic" counterparts, such "minority role models" are regularly asked to put on the public record—at lunches, award ceremonies, community events—lengthy statements of their views on America's most explosive topic: race.

Imagine Chief Justice John Roberts being invited by members of his own cultural network to deliver remarks for the Honorable William H. Rehnquist Law & Cultural Diversity Memorial Lecture on what special qualities white men bring to the bench: "What makes your approach, as a white male, different from that of your black judicial colleagues?" "Does being a white man give you special insight into the perspective of white male defendants in discrimination cases?" "Has the presence of white men on the bench made any difference in American law?" Odds are he wouldn't last two minutes before treading on someone's sensibilities. But this political high-wire act is expected from minority figures as a matter of course.

Of course, "nonethnic" professionals are often invited back to their home communities—at Rotary Club functions, alumni gatherings, or similar events. But they are not usually asked to speak about race relations (just as they are not usually asked to speak on abortion, gay marriage, or any other potentially controversial topic). Yet prominent "ethnic" people are constantly asked to lay bare their opinions on the subject of race and their personal experiences of racial issues. At first, these invitations come from one's community, one's family, one's classmates, mentors, and students. Later, as with a certain first black president of the Harvard Law Review, such invitations may well come from major publishing houses.

Such figures rightly view it as their professional responsibility—and their honor and privilege—to step up to the podium when invited, to act as a role model, to offer commiseration and encouragement for communities often deeply in need of inspiration.  That such invitations are extended to prominent "minority" figures has resulted in immeasurably important contributions to our national dialogue about these issues and hopefully has helped to chip away at the glass ceiling.

But this podium should not become a pillory. Frank talk about racial identity is neither racism nor its reverse and should be invited from "ethnic" and "nonethnic" figures alike. It's hardly fair for minority candidates to be attacked for accepting invitations to talk about race when members of the silent majority are allowed to remain silent.

Monica Youn is an attorney in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.

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