While the election of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed as the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 2009, was a great symbolic victory for minorities aspiring to higher office, the battle for racial equality and social justice is not over. However, the U.S may be witnessing a discourse around religion, race and politics — which is unprecedented since the Civil Rights movement. In this moment of shift, I believe that leaders like Sotomayor can not only set an example for minority youth and inspire them but also work to build a bulwark against some of the structural racial injustices in our system. Here's three ways, she can help minorities from the Supreme Court:
1. Uphold constitutional liberties and also defend against racism: While every representative of the government is expected to uphold the Constitution, it does help if there are minorities who are able to bring another perspective to the table. In this case, Sotomayor seems to bring a strong sense of justice and sensibility and sensitivity to issues of justice and racial equality.
2. Inspire minority youth: While not part of her official mandate, by default she has become a symbol of minority empowerment, being of Hispanic origin and coming from a middle class family. It is widely acknowledged among educators that role models play a big role in inspiring youth to behave and live in ways that uphold moral values, focus on education and aspire for the best in life. This is especially true for many minority youth, who often lag in education (in terms of achievement) on an average.
3. Challenge discourses around minorities, crime: In a brief about a criminal case that brought up issues related to racism, crime and the minorities Justice Sotomayor said, "by suggesting that race should play a role in establishing a defendant's criminal intent, the prosecutor here tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our Nation. There was a time when appeals to race were not uncommon, when a prosecutor might direct a jury to "consider the fact that Mary Sue Rowe is a young white woman and that this defendant is a black man for the purpose of determining his intent at the time he entered Mrs. Rowe's home," Holland v. State, 247 Ala. 53, 22 So. 2d 519, 520 (1945).
At the same time, it is good to remind ourselves that identity politics can be dangerous. It is key to remember that race identity plays a part in determining how some people are treated, despite constitutional guarantees. The "post-racial America," that President Obama called for in 2004, in the words, "there's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," ring true, even today.
It is also true that violence, injustice, bigotry are not one-way affairs, and often these problems do not have racial or ethnic lines.
Despite these challenges, I believe that leaders who come from a minority community have a symbolic as well as practical role. And it is in this symbolism that can be used effectively in tackling social justice issues.