Sotomayor Debate Reminds Us to Value Diversity

by Paul Fidalgo // Published July 14, 2009
As expected, today is the day that Judge Sonia Sotomayor is being grilled on her famous "wise Latina" comment by Senate Republicans. Those particular comments are of course but a small snippet that, out of context, belies the point of a larger speech:
America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension. We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud. . . I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.
In the midst of the debate, I thought it was a good idea to visit an op-ed written by our own Rob Richie and Cynthia Terrell that was spurred by the controversy over Judge Sotomayor's comments, published last month in Roll Call. In it, Rob and Cindy take the opportunity to make the case for more diversity and more accurate representation in all branches of government, not just the court. Some highlights:
The demand for greater diversity is equally compelling for our legislature. A Supreme Court with six white men, one African-American man and two women doesn't look like America, but reflects it more than today's Congress. Only 17 percent of Senators are women - higher than the appalling 2 percent level at the time of Justice Clarence Thomas' nomination but far short of parity. Eighty-three percent of House Members are men. Only three Senators are African-American or Latino. With Florida's Mel Martinez (R) retiring and Illinois' Roland Burris (D) plagued by scandal, their numbers could soon dwindle to one.

Across our 50 states, only seven women serve as governors, eight as lieutenant governors and four as attorneys general. The number of women in state legislatures is 24 percent, only slightly higher than the 21 percent rate of female state legislators 15 years ago. The South Carolina state Senate lacks even a single female member, and the number of Republican female state Representatives is at its lowest since 1988.

[. . .]

The biggest barriers [to fair representation] are our current electoral laws. In the spirit of President Obama's belief in the importance of more women serving on the Supreme Court, he should establish a national commission to examine barriers to election of women and people of color. Substantive reforms should be on the table, such as an increase in the size of the U.S. House, multi-seat districts rather than single-member districts, proportional voting rather than winner-take-all, and inclusion of gender in the Voting Rights Act.

If diversity is a genuine concern--and more to the point, more accurate and fair representation for all manner of groups and coalitions, be they racial, ethnic, gender-based, political, philosophical, what have you--there are practical ways to bring it about. By honestly addressing the mechanisms of our electoral and political systems and their flaws, we can make meaningful changes that will help more fully realize the potential of American democracy and equality.