Bench Memos

Race Matters

I don’t contest at all Justice Sotomayor’s proposition, in the Michigan case decided yesterday, that race continues to matter in lots of ways in this country. But I think that Chief Justice Roberts rightly responds, in his brief concurrence, that Sotomayor’s proposition does not meaningfully advance the case for racial preferences, whether on constitutional or policy grounds. [Addendum: Sotomayor asserts, “Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’” Roberts offers the obvious response that it is racial preferences that “may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt.”]​

I’m also struck by this assertion of Sotomayor’s:

Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home.

If I’m understanding this properly (and perhaps I’m not), Sotomayor is positing that, say, a young Hispanic person who doesn’t speak Spanish would find it racially demeaning for “a stranger” to speak to him or her in Spanish. Just wondering: Is it racially demeaning only if the stranger is, or appears to be, non-Hispanic? If so, why isn’t that a racist reaction on the part of the young person?

Also, I had thought that English-only policies were regarded as racially demeaning. Is it also racially demeaning for a stranger to speak to a young Hispanic person in English if it turns out that the young Hispanic person doesn’t know English? If so, how is the stranger supposed to know in advance which language to use? Isn’t this a case in which the stranger is being damned either way?    

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