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Sotomayor defends black and Latino men

Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images

Justice Sonia Sotomayor lets her inner “wise Latina” roar:

“U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Monday condemned racially charged language used by a federal prosecutor in Texas.

The justice, appointed to the court by President Barack Obama in 2009, took the relatively unusual step of writing a statement to accompany the nine-member Supreme Court’s announcement that it would not take up a criminal case.

Sotomayor took issue with the unidentified prosecutor who, while questioning an African-American defendant in a drug case, asked: ‘You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, this is a drug deal?’

The first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor wrote that the prosecutor had ‘tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our nation.’

The question was ‘pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence,’ she added.”

Monday’s reproach underscores why we need more diversity in the nation’s judiciary, because I’m not so sure the prosecutor’s questioning would’ve been properly addressed had it not been for the sole Latino justice reviewing the case.

It’s no secret that the crime rate among people of color is significantly higher than that of whites. So are we to believe that increased melanin makes a person genetically prone to robbing, slanging and killing? Of course not.

Maybe, just maybe, the American system has been engineered to lock up large numbers of black and Latino men — a theory daringly brought to the fore by Michelle Alexander in her best-selling The New Jim Crow.

Lighter-skinned readers likely think I’m some racial paranoid, and inevitably a few darker-skinned readers will respond with anecdotal evidence about how their inexperience with racial profiling is proof positive that racism in the criminal justice system is simply a figment of my liberal imagination. They can say what they will, but the numbers don’t lie.

Speaking of the numbers, if you believe that they accurately represent what’s going on in America — that blacks and Latinos are more criminal than other groups — then you’ve already allowed racism to gain a foothold in your mind. And if you’re a cop in Chicago (or a neighborhood watchman in Florida), you’re definitely racially profiling the citizens living in your patrol area. If you think the numbers don’t lie, and blacks and Latinos really do commit more crimes than whites, then you have to keep an eye out for people with darker skin.

Racism in criminal justice system affects Latinos in a variety of ways. Despite the constant reminders that some people think you don’t belong exactly where you’ve always been (I’ve been stopped and questioned a few times while jogging at night), Latinos also begin to not trust each other.

There are undoubtedly a good chunk of Latinos who feel safer driving through a white neighborhood or grabbing a Blue Moon at a white bar, and the same Latinos probably feel a bit tenser driving through a Latino neighborhood or grabbing a cubito at a Latino bar. But maybe that’s just a Chicago thing. (Neighborhoods like Pilsen and West Humboldt Park aren’t dangerous because of the buildings.)

I’m ashamed but brave enough to admit that I’ve had such feelings on occasion. But I make it a point to remind myself that the people around me — whether black, brown or whatever — are just like me, and that crime and violence are not determined by DNA.

Of course, this piece isn’t meant to be the definitive commentary on race and justice in America. How can I even begin to capture in a few hundred measly words what it means to be a black or Latino man (or, in my case, both) and how such men feel towards the justice system and the police officers meant to serve and protect?

There aren’t enough pens with enough ink in the world to write that story down.

All I can do is thank Justice Sotomayor for being who she is, for remembering where she comes from, and thereby understanding who black and Latino men are and what they’re not.

About Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.

Hector Luis Alamo, Jr., is the associate editor at Being Latino and a native son of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. He received a B.A. in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. While at UIC, he worked first as a staff writer for the Chicago Flame and later became the newspaper's Opinions editor. He contributes to various Chicago-area publications, most notably, the RedEye and Gozamos. He's also a cultural critic for 'LLERO magazine. He has maintained a personal blog since 2007, YoungObservers.blogspot.com, where he discusses topics ranging from political history and philosophy to culture and music.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

Comments

  1. I appreciate Sotomayor stepping up to bat like this. Replacing stereotypes for evidence, nice call.

    On the other hand, why would you feel nervous in Latino or black areas? It’s not the color of the skin, it’s the actions people in those areas take.

    I’ve been the victim of random violence since I was a kid. For wanting to go to school, for studying, etc. Sometimes I was just walking home from school and boom next thing you know I’m getting robbed.

    The reason we get nervous is cause things happen, and unfortunately, say what you will, our neighborhoods happen to have them happening more. I can’t accept blaming the system, most crimes committed that I witnessed growing up did not have a white man forcing anyone to do anything.

    Like you said, this isn’t an easy topic to discuss and resolve.

  2. I do not believe that people of color commit crimes at a higher rate than white people do, but I do believe that people of color are prosecuted more frequently for them.

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