"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" - so says the Declaration of Independence, the shot across Britain's bow that said there was no God-sanctioned hierarchy of individuals.
"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." - so said the Constitution of the United States, reminding everyone that when the Declaration of Independence said "all men," it really only meant all men.
And, furthermore, it really only meant all white men.
An inconvenient truth
Ever since those conflicting passages were written, the relentless arc of justice has worked to reconcile both to a greater meaning and a greater good. Using wisdom, using balance, using experience, and, yes, using empathy a succession of amendments and progressive interpretations have incrementally expanded our understanding, legally and morally, of what "all men" should, and does, mean.
It means white men, yes. But it has, grudgingly, haltingly, and not without protest come to be understood to mean black men, too. And yellow men. And men with physical ailments. Men with differing, or even non-existent, religious beliefs.
And "all men" has also come to be understood to mean "all women," as well.
But, as I said, this hasn't come without protest and resistance. Reactionary forces have always resisted expanding the franchise, because they understand that expansion only in a frame that threatens them. And this is because the reactionary fundamentally rejects the premise in even the original, narrow, understanding of the Declaration of Independence.
That is, the premise that there is no natural hierarchy of individuals. The premise that God did not, does not, hold some, naturally, in a more exalted position than others.
That the children of Japheth are, in God's eyes, not the natural superiors of the children of Ham.
And blind justice
The reactionary wallows in authority and the notion that some, like a strict father and a wayward son, are just naturally super- and subordinate. A philosophy of good and evil rooted not in a complex moral code but rather by the simple virtue of authority. What is good? Whatever he tells me is good. What is bad? Whatever he tells me is bad.
Which brings me to the current reactionary meltdown over President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States' Supreme Court. A meltdown anchored in a speech Sotomayor gave, in which she said: "Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
The right wants us to believe that this is an inherently racist statement, that Sotomayor is asserting the inherent superiority of Latinas over white man. Which is, of course, patently ridiculous. But, first, we need to do some more investigating.
Note that Sotomayor began that statement with the word "Second," which implies that she made another qualification before it. What was that qualification? That "First ... there can never be a universal definition of wise."
Which is pure, unadulterated, heresy. No universal definition of wise? That two jurists could both be wise and, at the same time, come to a different conclusion regarding a matter of law? What could that mean, other than the fiction of a blind justice is just that, fiction? That jurists don't, can't, just check their own emotional baggage, their life experiences and their own culturally derived frames outside the courtroom door?
Who the hell does Sotomayor think she is? I'll tell you. I think she's someone who understands history. Who understands that the same Supreme Court to which she is now being nominated is the same court that upheld Plessy v. Ferguson in which wise white men, by a 7-1 majority, upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation arguing:
"We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."
Consider, if you will, if the court of Plessy v. Ferguson had on it a wise black man from, say, Alabama. Perhaps that black man had earlier lived the life of a cotton picker on a pre-Civil War plantation. Might it not be reasonable to assume that he would disagree with his wise, white, brethren that the inferiority implied and asserted by the doctrine of separate but equal was only a matter of his choice?
Might it not be reasonable too to assume that the wise black juror would not come to the same conclusion as his wise white colleagues -- their conclusion regarding the experience of treatment of his race, in the South, was simply a figment of his imagination?
Of course. Which is all that Sotomayor chose to say. A single, glaring, painful truth that some want to assert, because it threatens their order of a society in which they enjoy the power, as "racist."
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.