Sotomayor’s Resignation from a Women’s Club

Judge Sotomayor’s resignation from a women’s club is the result of the typical conservative failure either to understand or support the fight against discrimination. Saying that women or blacks cannot get together to support each other because we have insisted that whites and men admit women and blacks is like saying that with the score 89-0 we’ll all play fair from now on.

Women’s clubs were formed for the obvious and entirely appropriate reason that women were starting from behind and needed a way to get into the game. We celebrate the ways that Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans and others resorted to self-help when they came to these shores. But women, blacks and Hispanics, against whom discrimination has lasted much longer in this country, are to be forbidden self-help. These conservatives criticize blacks who do not give back to their communities. But when women and minorities try to give back, to help others behind them, these so-called “fair minded conservatives” turn on them for racism or sexism.

The game is simpler and much more sinister than their rhetoric makes it appear. What has happened is that conservatives have learned to manipulate the language of equality to stop the process of equalization. These conservatives are fighting to retain what they think are their privileges against the possibility that their privileges will henceforth actually have to depend on their qualities, not the ways that they have learned to keep people out, to prevent people from access to the training and the experience and especially the contacts that ultimately make assimilation possible. They hide behind the language of treating everyone equally when in fact they are dealing from a stacked deck.

Let me take you back to 1953 before Brown v. Board was decided, before the momentous decision that required desegregation of public schools in the United States. The Court had already decided that blacks could not be denied an integrated instate graduate or professional school education, access to a previously white law school or medical college, even if the state offered instead to pay the student’s tuition to the best schools in the country so long as they were somewhere else. Harvard, fine, that’s in Boston. But the Court said not good enough. Nor could the state create a parallel university with all the same professors but in a separate campus – same quality but separate – separate but equal as the expression goes. Of course nothing had been equal in the past but as the legal challenges of the NAACP picked up steam, the southern states started promising to make up for lost time and in a hurry.

No thanks, the Court said. Part of what would be missing was intangible – the opportunity to get to know people with whom these young men and women would have to work or contend with, or for the law students, the judges they would have to appear before. They wouldn’t have the chance to make the friendships and form the contacts on which careers are based. Long before Brown, the Court had already made it clear that separate was inherently unequal – for very practical reasons.

But recognizing that women and blacks did not have access to these contacts, conservatives decided they’d squeeze the bottleneck as tight as possible – few without those experiences and contacts would figure out how to succeed at the white man’s game and white male privileges would survive. Women, blacks, Hispanics and others decided to make up for what they hadn’t experienced by organizing clubs to pass on how to handle their opportunities.

So the decision of Judge Sotomayor that I regret is not the decision to join a women’s club. It is the decision to resign, to close one channel of passing on the keys to success. By the way, I have a daughter who is about to start teaching at the college level, and a twenty-one month old granddaughter who learns at a prodigious rate. You go gals.

— Broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 23, 2009.

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