Saturday, August 08, 2009

Irrelevance of Ethnicity

Tibor R. Machan

CNN has just notified me by email that "Sonia Sotomayor [was] sworn in as U.S. Supreme Court justice; first Hispanic on high court." I signed up to receive notification of breaking news but the notification should not have made any mention of the lady's ethnicity. Or sex. Or race. Or height. Or indeed anything over which Justice Sotomayor has no control whatsoever unless it could be an impediment to her ability to serve in the new job she got.

I am, as some readers will recall, of Hungarian background. But this is not some achievement for which I should receive credit or blame or even be noticed, certainly not when it comes to my profession or how I am to be dealt with my the legal system. In personal matters it may have some significance. If I were to go on one of the cyber-dating web sites and I filled out a form about me, I might mention having been born in Budapest just in case some appealing potential partner had a yen for Hungarian food or music or something else associated with the country. But this is because in such matchmaking contexts one isn't mainly concerned with achievements or accomplishments but with tastes and preferences. And there is nothing wrong with having such a yen but everything with attaching some kind of moral or political importance to it. One might have a preference for a date or even mate who is tall or dark skinned or light, or one with a predilection for mountain climbing or bowling. Others who don't fit the bill will not be candidates. But to prefer someone with ethnic attributes of a certain kind for high office is political misjudgment. That Justice Sotomayor is a Hispanic should have absolutely nothing to do with her qualification for a place on the court, any more than my being of Hungarian extraction should have anything to do with whether I am qualified to vote in a political election.

This is why it disturbed me that CNN thought it important to mention Justice Sotomayor's ethnicity. I don't want to seem picky and, yes, there are times when where one comes from or where one has been raised as a child can be of some relevance to what kind of work one is doing. In my case, for example, since I do a good deal of writing in English, and given my origins I am not as fluent in English as my work might require me to be, it could be important to know that I will probably need some editing help with what I write, something that native speakers tend not to.When I was a young refugee here in the states and knew that I wanted to teach at the college level, I made sure that I had a great many chance practicing my new language, the third in my case. I always believed that it would be best not to obscure my message, in the classroom or elsewhere, by having too heavy an accent, so I used mimicking disc jockeys and learning the lyrics to popular as a way to prepare myself. (Yes, I never had the idea of receiving bilingual instructions in the various subjects I took--that was something that became a demand of later generations of immigrants.)

The idea that one should be color blind in one's interactions with people isn't something that applies universally, to all relations with others, either. Casting a movie about African slave revolts cannot be done without paying attention to color. Nor need one ignore color or ethnicity or other idiosyncratic attributes in others when it comes to one's personal aesthetic tastes. Some like the features of Asian or black or Mongolian potential mates. But when one has a clear job description to apply, these have no place in one's decision. Being a justice of the United States Supreme Court has nothing at all to do with what one's color or ethnic background happens to be and the fact that at one time it did is something very regrettable, the source of much injustice in history and should be completely erased in our selection procedures.

Of course, all that business of legally mandated affirmative action is what prolongs reaching this objective and does not in any way remedy the injustices of the past. Those injustices were perpetrated by and on people in the past. Those not being discriminated now have no business asking for remedies of such past injustices, any more than if some people in 1850 who robbed a house could have their ill gotten gains returned to their rightful owners by having their great grand kids pay compensation to the victim's great grand kids. If any such procedure would apply, it would have to be done with meticulous care, tracing the causal relationships from the event in the past to losses o harm claimed from them by those in the present. To try to skip this by some wave of the hand that says, "Well, we will just add to the benefits received by the grandchildren (or worse, people of similar race or skin color), never mind which individuals caused the harms to the grandparents" is a species of just the sort of racism that brought on all the problems and ought to be wiped out.

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