Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor & Ethnic Identification

Sonia Sotomayor (say so-toe-my-YORE) would not be the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court.

To take nothing away from the justifiable pride that Hispanics feel in the nomination of the child of Puerto Rican immigrant parents who grew up in a South Bronx housing project and was a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton, that distinction probably belongs to Justice Benjamin Cardozo.

But therein lies a tale.

Cardozo, as Eugene Volokh and others point out, was the descendant of Portuguese Jews who immigrated to America, and when he was nominated by President Hoover in 1932 he was considered a Jew and not an Hispanic.

In fact, Cardozo filled what came to be known as the High Court's "Jewish seat" and was succeeded by three other Jewish justices.

Being an Hispanic was a vague thing in those days, and while Jews, Italians and the Irish, among others, had identifiable voting blocs and political power in their own right, Hispanics were very few and very far between.

Hispanics were defined in Cardozo's time as people from ancient Hispania, or the Iberian Peninsula, but today are considered the people of countries formerly ruled by Spain, including Mexico and most of Central and South America.

As well as the fastest-growing
ethnic voting bloc in the U.S. and responsible for an extraordinary political realignment. This is because many Hispanics, conservative by inclination and religion, drifted into the arms of the Democratic Party and went for Barack Obama over John McCain by a 2-1 margin in 2008 as the Republican Party (although not McCain himself) embraced an anti-immigrant nativism that has helped define its xenophobic tack to the right.

All that so noted, the Census Bureau does not consider Portuguese Americans to be Hispanic, although some other federal agencies do.

It matters not, because in the end ethnicity is substantially what you consider yourself to be. What Sotomayor is doesn't matter; what she brings to the court and the legacy she fashions will.

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