03 June 2009

(Timberland) Boot Straps

Dear Gayle,

I'm sure you've heard by now, but just in case you haven't, Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice David Souter. Understandably, women and people of color, especially Latinos, are rejoicing about the pick. This moment is historic. And though I doubt it, I hope her previous judicial record and her time as a Justice are as liberal as choosing her as a replacement seems.

Since the nomination, I've nearly drowned in the deluge of up-by-the-bootstraps/American Dream rhetoric Sotomayor's biography has inspired. Here's a sample or three:

from the Washington Post:
There is much to admire in the achievements of Sonia Sotomayor [...] Born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in a housing project in the Bronx, Judge Sotomayor went on to excel at Princeton and earn a law degree from Yale.
from the New York Daily News:
The audience was transfixed, many in tears themselves, at a story that was at once classically American and one of a kind* - her mother's determined role in launching her daughter on an improbable journey from a South Bronx housing project to nomination as the nation's first Latina Supreme Court justice.

Sotomayor's father was a factory worker with a third-grade education who didn't speak English. He died when Sotomayor was 9, and her mother worked six days a week as a nurse to provide for her two children.

Sotomayor grew up in the Bronxdale Houses, a sprawling, 26-building low-income project of seven-story apartment buildings in Soundview just north of the Bruckner Expressway.

"Sonia's mom bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood," Obama said. "[She] sent her children to a Catholic school called Cardinal Spellman, out of the belief that with a good education, here in America, all things are possible.
from the New York Times:
It’s impossible* not to be moved by Judge Sotomayor’s story — born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents and brought up in a city housing project. She was found to have diabetes as a child, and her father, a factory worker, died when she was 9, leaving her mother, a nurse, to raise her and her brother. Judge Sotomayor attended Princeton, from which she graduated summa cum laude, and Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the law review.
and from the President:
Sonia's father was a factory worker with a third-grade education who didn't speak English.

But like Sonia's mother, he had a willingness to work hard, a strong sense of family, and a belief in the American dream.

When Sonia was 9, her father passed away, and her mother worked six days a week as a nurse to provide for Sonia and her brother -- who's also here today, is a doctor, and a terrific success in his own right -- but Sonia's mom bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood, sent her children to a Catholic school called Cardinal Spellman, out of the belief that with a good education here in America all things are possible.*

With the support of family, friends and teachers, Sonia earned scholarships to Princeton, where she graduated at the top of her class, and Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal, stepping onto the path that led her here today.

Along the way, she's faced down barriers, overcome the odds, and lived out the American dream that brought her parents here so long ago.

*emphasis added

Touching, right? Yes, absolutely. But this, Gayle, is an example of what I will call the POC (People of Color) Candy Cocktail (until I come up with a better name). Though it is inspiring, the subsequent hustling of Sotomayor's story as "compelling" is really about making a person of color palatable, digestable, understandable, and acceptable to white people--sort of like when my mom dips Nala's medicine in peanut butter. Compelling is nothing but code.

Many Americans like to believe in the American myths of hard work and the equal playing field. So much so that you would think that they had actually read Horatio Alger or Ben Franklin's autobiography. Sotomayor's story fits nicely within that discourse. The unfortunate death of Sotomayor's father (justifiable, and "non-black" father absenteeism), her mother working two jobs to support her and her brother, studying grammar books over the summer to catch up to her Princeton classmates--all that fits nicely into that narrative.

What it also does is imply that every other person of color who doesn't "make it" is a lazy whiner. What it does is hide the fact that housing projects in the 1950s and 60s were different from the ones (still) around now. (I did a quick search. Bronxdale Homes is in Soundview. Sotomayor notwithstanding, every other notable citizen is in the music business. Amadou Diallo was shot in the neighborhood. What does that tell you?) What it really does is obscure the structural barriers that somehow had nothing to do with the fact that every other resident worth noting in a Wiki entry is a rapper. Can you imagine KRS-One, another South Bronx native and only 11 years Sotomayor's junior, as a Supreme Court Justice?

Folks want to continue to believe that racism works merely on an individual, personal level. That it's about drinking from colored water fountains (now that's an idea for blipsters), being called wetback, and famous white people pulling their eyelids back and taking pictures. And spinning Sotomayor's tale in this way works right into the mythos. What's more, it allows folks to silently agree that POC have to work hard to get shit the straight white male (should) just naturally possess--things like material wealth, seats on a court (and courtside seats), and intelligence. Perhaps memory fails, but I don't recall Chief Justice Robert's story being served to me like that.

Perhaps this is all part of game. The POC Candy Cocktail: A beverage so tasty The Man doesn't even know what he's sipping, and by the time he figures it out we already have the keys to the car and he's too drunk to do anything about it. Only time will tell. I guess I'm just tired. I'm not sure I've the stamina to continue tricking people into respecting me. Besides, I fear we've been tugging on our frayed bootstraps for so long they're going to break soon. Again, only time will tell.


1 comment:

z.bediako said...

Are black and latino folks truly believing the elections of these colored folk changes the way we're perceived by the dominant community? I was getting on train the other week and i overheard a man say that he would no longer be shooting the shit because his president was black. How ignant is this? Folk get proud when somebody white finally says - hey black boy. you've done well! here is your ribbon! All of a sudden we start to get all proud. the (not so) funny thing is to GET power these leaders usually have to reject their race or other cultural affiliation (and the socio political reality of aiding in the construction of these marginalized communities ) and continue ignoring it Maintain that power.
These obama's and sotomayors aren't being looked upon as the ability of the black/brown community, but as the exceptions.

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