Take the time, if you haven’t already, to read the following post on Sonia Sotomayor and identity politics, by my good friend Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger at The Atlantic. In addition to being an original thinker with a highly original voice, Ta-Nehisi is the son of a black nationalist. I am the grandson of a Jewish nationalist (i.e. a Zionist). We’ve thus spent many evenings exchanging notes about what Ta-Nehisi once called ‘the perils and boons’ of nationalism – the air of superiority but also the sense of empowerment that can be wrung out of thinking in terms of ethnic/racial categories and groups.
Like me, Ta-Nehisi apparently fell out of his chair the other day when he read this op-ed by David Brooks, in which the Times’ columnist suggested that Sotomayor would have been better off if she had attended college in the 1950s, when the creed-of-choice among striving ethnic kids was assimilation, not the crusading multiculturalism that spoiled the atmosphere in the 1970s. Her problem was "bad timing," mused Brooks.
Sotomayor attended Princeton, as it happens, which did not begin admitting women until 1969. Sounds to me like her timing was pretty damn good! What was missing from Brooks’ column? Something often missing when white guys who have enjoyed their share of privilege lament the scourge of identity politics – which, in its cruder versions, including the strain that flourished on some college campuses and certain enclaves of the left in recent decades, certainly does merit criticism. Ta-Nehisi identifies the curious omission here:
A critique of liberal identity politics is not wrong on its face, but it almost always is unconcerned with the identity politics of power. Thus Sotomayor’s focus on her identity as a "wise Latina" pose is seen as the disturbing result of multiculturalism run amok, not having been raised in a country where the tangible mechanisms of white supremacy were in full effect.
It isn’t, for instance, the fact that Sotomayor was raised in an era where government-backed redlining was still legal, it’s the fact that some students at Yale demanded a Chicano history course that’s the issue. Likewise, it isn’t the oppressive identity politics practiced by conservatives for the past 30 years that’s disturbing, but Sotomayor’s response to it. To be a true conservative is to be more disturbed by victimology, than actual victimizing. It is to claim to abhor evil–but to abhor the response to evil even more.