Race, Gender, and the Supreme Court?

June 10, 2009

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Has Judge Sonia Maria Sotomayor offered sociologists a window into how social variables shape people's understanding of each other and society?

I was talking to one of my classes today and the topic of Judge Sonia Maria Sotomayor came up among the students. There seems to be some controversy about what she reportedly said in a speech roughly seven years ago. CNNpolitics.com reported that on October 26, 2001, Judge Sotomayor stated: “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.” You can read the article at CNN.com.

I was interested in the social categories the Judge reportedly referred to. Do you think the categories (“Latina woman” and “white male”) are social or biological in nature? And do you think that the question of whether they refer to biological or social variables should affect the current controversy? Remember now, I’m not asking for your personal opinion, but rather your sociological interpretations. If you would like to offer that, please respond to one of the discussion points below:

1. Is being referred to as “white” in America a reference to race? Think about this—do the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, French, Germans, Swedish, Norwegians, Poles, Australians, Icelanders, and Canadians view themselves as being the same “race” of people? Does the term “Latina” mean that Cubans, Spaniards, Peruvians, Brazilians, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, Venezuelans, and Panamanians view themselves as one race? If not, what do “Latina” and “white” refer to? What insight does this give you into the issue of race in America?

2. Do you know the difference between gender and sex? Gender refers to concepts of masculinity and femininity in a culture. Things can be masculine in a specific culture such as professions, clothes, cars, speech, and even behavior. The same can be said for feminine. The key idea is gender is a social product created through norms and values. Sex is a biological state—it is physical. How can the behavioral expectations of a society based upon gender effect people’s perspective of society and each other?

3. Based on the issues covered in the topics above (thinking like a social scientist!), what would be the disadvantages and advantages of taking into account someone’s ethnicity, sex, race, and age when selecting people for the Supreme Court?

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