The 2010 confirmation hearings of now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor were, in many ways, a coming attraction of the angry white man syndrome that permeates Tea Party politics and has dominated the 2012 election post-mortem. During those hearings Republicans attacked Sotomayor as a “hothead,” mocked her as a “wise Latina,” and ridiculed her as a racist for her understanding of why and how race and gender can effect legal reasoning. She was, in short, too female and too ethnic to appease the radical right in the judiciary committee and the Senate and they let her, and the American public, know it.
Yet to really understand how significant Sotomayor’s role on the Supreme Court is, and just what her story means, consider this brief, and heartwarming, appearance on Sesame Street. Here, Justice Sotomayor joins young Abby to talk about the word “career.” Abby, representative of many young girls everywhere declared she wanted to grow up to be a princess. For this, Justice Sotomayor offers the perfect answer.
“Pretending to be a princess is fun, but it is definitely not a career” says Sotomayor. “Remember, a career is a job that you train and prepare for and that you plan to do for a long time.”
When Abby asks “what a girl like me” can do for a career instead of being a princess Sotomayor suggests going to school to be a “teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, and even a scientist.”
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In just about two-and-a-half minutes Sotomayor manages to hit every culture war fear the right projected onto her during her confirmation hearings and, with grace and an infectious grin, turned that racism and misogyny into a moment for powerful change. Here this “wise Latina,” a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, directs young girls to go to school to become scientists and doctors and lawyers rather than aspiring to be princesses. She uses her own biography as an example and Abby eats it up. And she does so on Sesame Street, the one place where Tea Party conservatives believe the slide into the liberal abyss begins.
This is why elections matter. President Obama will likely appoint at least one, but maybe as many as four, Supreme Court justices. Would Justice Samuel Alito have shown up on Sesame Street to tell young girls everywhere to go to school to become doctors and lawyers? We can hope, but a read of his opinions suggests that’s not likely. And if Republicans had their way such an appearance wouldn’t even be possible as federal funding for educational programming like Sesame Street would evaporate and public broadcasting as we know it end.
As we focus on the “changing demographics” that propelled an overwhelming majority of voters who were not white-men of middling education to vote for Democrats, and as we prepare for future judicial confirmation hearings where angry-white men are most often their worst-behaived, we can expect the racial and gender histrionics from the right to reach even greater heights. After all, thanks to those “changing demographics,” a wise Latina can appear on a tv show that reaches millions of low-income and minority households to tell young girls everywhere that being a princess is not a likely career, but that girls have many options, and can use her own story as the inspiring proof.