Of Racial Politics and Supreme Court Nominations

I have two early observations about today’s announcement of Sonia Sotemayor as President Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  1. Headline:  “First Black President Nominates First Hispanic SC Justice.”  Unfortunately both parts of this statement are inaccurate.  Our president is not black but of mixed race.  Sotemayor is not the first Hispanic nominee.  FDR nominated an Hispanic justice (a Spanish-American).
  2. One broadcast journalist made the comment that the selection of Sotemayor will help President Obama solidify his political ties to Hispanics, especially in border states.  This reminds me of a situation which occurred in my life in the early 1990’s.  I was managing a CEO search for a hospital along the U.S.-Mexican border in a community with a heavily-dominant Hispanic population.  I mentioned to the search committee chair that I presumed there would be a preference for Hispanic candidates, given the nature of the community and the medical staff.  His answer surprised me.  He said, “One-third of our medical staff is Mexican-American, one third is Caribbean-Hispanic, and one-third is Central/South American Hispanic.  There is significant distrust and ill-will between all three groups.  If we hire an Hispanic CEO, he or she will immediately lose the support of two-thirds of the medical staff.  However, if we hire a non-Hispanic, he or she will be equally distrusted by all!”

I have heard about this intra-Latino rivalry in other places, too.  It’s unfortunate that it exists, but it does exist.  It will be interesting to see how the Mexican-American community reacts to a Puerto Rican Latino SC Justice nominee.  Personally, I hope any person or group opposing her nomination does so on the basis of her qualifications and/or judicial philosophy.  However, if President Obama is looking to score political points with the Hispanic community in border states, he may find it not so easy in this case.