During her confirmation hearings last week, Sonia Sotomayor repudiated her now-famous earlier statement that “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”. Of course, political pressure makes confirmation hearings no place to stick to a nuanced point, but I’m still sorry that Sotomayor had to back away from that point rather than explaining some things about experience, perspective, and education.
The key phrase is “with the richness of her experiences”. Experience is educational; judges who have had richer experiences are better educated and may therefore reach better, decisions than judges with less understanding of the way the world and people are. Hardly problematic, it seems to me. Whether the experiences of Latinas are indeed richer than those of White men would then become the question. Not always, I’d guess, but given the dynamics of race and social class probably true of most Latinas and White men who become judges.
I hear Sotomayor echoing Dewey’s argument about growth and burglars. Cliques of all sorts, including the company of elite lawyers, and the educational situations in which many law-school bound students grow up, are inimical to education that reaches beyond the limitations of school. Rather than criticize Sotomayor for this point, we might all want to think again about what factors enable White men to lose touch with the wider experiences of humanity. And not only White men, of course, or all White men -- there's no need to slide into an essentialism that I don't read in Sotomayor's original comment. Richness of experience matters. That's the main idea.