Being Brown: Sonia Sotomayor and the Latino Question

Being Brown: Sonia Sotomayor and the Latino Question

by Lázaro Lima

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Being Brown: Sonia Sotomayor and the Latino Question tells the story of the country’s first Latina Supreme Court Associate Justice’s rise to the pinnacle of American public life at a moment of profound demographic and political transformation. While Sotomayor’s confirmation appeared to signal the greater acceptance and inclusion of Latinos—the nation’s largest “minority majority”—the uncritical embrace of her status as a “possibility model” and icon paradoxically erased the fact that her success was due to civil rights policies and safeguards that no longer existed. 
Being Brown analyzes Sotomayor’s story of success and accomplishment, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, in order to ask: What do we lose in democratic practice when we allow symbolic inclusion to supplant the work of meaningful political enfranchisement? In a historical moment of resurgent racism, unrelenting Latino bashing, and previously unimaginable “blood and soil” Nazism, Being Brown explains what we stand to lose when we allow democratic values to be trampled for the sake of political expediency, and demonstrates how understanding “the Latino question” can fortify democratic practice.
Being Brown provides the historical vocabulary for understanding why the Latino body politic is central to the country’s future and why Sonia Sotomayor’s biography provides an important window into understanding America, and the country’s largest minority majority, at this historical juncture. In the process, Being Brown counters “alternative facts” with historical precision and ethical clarity to invigorate the best of democratic practice at a historical moment when we need it most. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520300897
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/12/2019
Series: American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present , #9
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 677,666
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Lázaro Lima is Professor of Latino Studies in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies at Hunter College, CUNY. He is the author of The Latino Body: Crisis Identities in American Literary and Cultural Memory and the coeditor, with Felice Picano, of Ambientes: New Queer Latino Writing.

Read an Excerpt


Sonia Sotomayor and "the Latino Question"

They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town.

W.E.B. Du Bois

What is the country to do with its most disenfranchised and misunderstood "majority minority," and what are Latinos to do about their disenfranchisement from "American" civic life? What I am here referring to as "the Latino question" is meant to draw attention to two of its historical parallels, "the Jewish question" and "the Negro problem." Much as "the Jewish question" comprised a debate about the status and appropriate treatment of Jews in Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, "the Negro problem" for W.E.B. Du Bois functioned as a provocative shorthand that allowed him to critically engage how Black agency confronted white supremacy as formerly enslaved peoples sought entry into American civic life after the Civil War (1861–65). For Du Bois, "the Negro problem" called attention both to how the history of slavery paradoxically made whites incapable of seeing their role as progenitors of the very problem they had created, and to how the education of Blacks, certainly, but also of whites, would serve to ameliorate the "problem." When in The Souls of Black Folks (1903) Du Bois avers, "How does it feel to be a problem?" he is rhetorically laying bare how he, and by extension all Blacks, are continually being asked to justify their very existence. While Du Bois's answer to "the problem" in his essay "The Talented Tenth" was that an educated Black elite would go on to be leaders and exemplars of "the race," my interest here is decidedly not prescriptive. Instead, I'd like "the Latino question" to serve as critical shorthand for the Latino conundrum that Sonia Sotomayor has inherited as the nation's best-known and most politically influential Latina. I do so because Sotomayor's life story as a representative Latina, and its use value to the nation, reveals the historically fraught relationship between Latinos and the broader national body politic, as well as the limited circuits of political representation and cultural enfranchisement available to the country's largest "majority minority." As such, Sotomayor's trajectory can illuminate the vagaries of the Latino question.

The Latino question itself is intimately tied to a series of national misapprehensions about the nature of Latinos and their role in American civic life: who they are, where they come from, why they come, and what they purportedly believe, as well as why they are presumed to be recent interlopers in the United States despite their long though unacknowledged history in the country. Indeed, the cultural anxieties surrounding the exigencies brought about by the Latino question have also inaugurated one of the most xenophobic chapters in the country's history and fueled anti-Latino sentiment and rampant discrimination. Even before the arrival of President Donald Trump's unabashed signature racism, and the concomitant rise of previously unimaginable racist- inflected xenophobia, scholars attempted to account for the structural divestment of Latinos from American civic life. The social anthropologist Leo R. Chávez considers the national misapprehensions surrounding the Latino question to be at the heart of this divestment, misapprehensions that are attributable to what he calls "the Latino threat narrative."

Chávez identifies four principal "threat narratives" that both fuel systemic discrimination against Latinos and prevent an honest and historically grounded discussion of the Latino question. According to Chávez, the Latino threat narrative purports "that Latinos do not want to speak English; that Latinos do not want to integrate socially and culturally into the larger U.S. society; that the Mexican-origin population, in particular, is part of a grand conspiracy to take over the U.S. Southwest (the 'Reconquista'); and, finally, that 'Latin' women are unable to control their reproductive capacities." Read in relation to the Latino threat narrative, the use value of Sotomayor's story and her image in the public sphere would seem to counter and assuage the misconceptions and unfounded fears attributed to the threat Latinos ostensibly pose to the country. Sotomayor is, after all, an accomplished Ivy League graduate who has interpreted the language and spirit of the law for her entire adult life. She has integrated and embraced the American dream of inclusion and social mobility as its principal and most visible representative Latino in the political sphere; she has been duly entrusted to safeguard the nation's laws as a keeper of the Constitution; and, not long after her confirmation in 2009, she took it upon herself to inspire the nation's young — especially Latino and Black youth — to respect the rule of law and appreciate how civics can bring us together as Americans. What is more, without having children herself, she has become a childless mother figure to disenfranchised youth throughout the country. But if Sotomayor's own narrative functions as a counterweight to the fears the Latino threat narrative poses to majority culture, just what are the costs associated with our need to assuage the misapprehensions and related national anxieties brought about by the Latino question through her remarkable story as an American and as a representative Latina? I consider this question to be of pressing significance for our moment.

Imani Perry has parsed the assumptions that subtend the spectacular narratives of minority uplift that inhere to both Sotomayor's and former president Barack Obama's stories of accomplishment in the face of insurmountable odds, narratives that are so stridently appealing for our moment because they reinterpret the story of minority failure to succeed in the national field of signification. They do so by positing exceptional figures that obscure both majoritarian and institutional culpability for the disenfranchisement of so many nationals by making "success" intelligible through the language of "the bootstraps narrative." The language of "the bootstraps" obviates historical accounting for the benefit of a more palatable and easy commonplace: if Obama and Sotomayor can do it, so can every other Black, Latino, or disenfranchised American. The danger, as Perry sees it, and as I echo here, is that these stories of advancement and success run the risk of ultimately depoliticizing the economic and the policy-driven initiatives that could make such minoritarian success possible. That is, we begin to confuse, if not altogether substitute, the trappings of our cultural moment's stories of minority success for the politics of an as-yet-unaccountable state and its vexed relationship to those minorities, as well as the conditions that would make such stories of inclusion meaningful. This is not to suggest, as Perry makes clear, that policies such as affirmative action can put an end to the structural and institutional divestment that such a large swath of our country's population has inherited. Quite the contrary. It is to say that while affirmative action represents the starting point for the legal recognition of broader structural problems, it has also been largely understood as a "giveaway" to those who do not necessarily deserve it. In the process of arriving and breaking glass ceilings through policies that sought to remedy structural inequalities in education, the likes of Obama and Sotomayor inherit a conundrum. They must distance themselves from the commonplace assertions that they may have been undeserving recipients of the nation's greater largesse and in the process reaffirm the "bootstraps narrative," which obviates the need to remember, recount, and reconsider why affirmative action policies were necessary in the first place — not to mention the costs associated with erasing their personal histories for a seat at the table.

Such an uncritical invocation of the bootstraps narrative in our moment ultimately runs the risk of forgetting President Lyndon B. Johnson's important distinction between "equality" and "justice," which he made in his now famous commencement address at Howard University (1965):

You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

We have forgotten Johnson's call to both remember the legacies of exclusion that devalue democratic principles, not to mention people, and to abolish these exclusions as a starting point for fortifying democratic practice. The historical amnesias that bind us to the narratives of bootstraps ultimately forestall the possibility for a national accounting that would make these stories of success and advancement ethically just and democratically meaningful. This is especially true in a historical moment of unrelenting attacks on Latino life and Latinos' very humanity. If that seems like an exaggeration, let us turn to the evidence at hand, first by foregrounding the laws that have specifically targeted Latino populations in an attempt to disenfranchise them and remand them to the edges of democracy's graveyard and, second, by framing how pseudoscience has attempted to provide the scaffolding for the conditions under which Latinos can be deemed less than human.


High-concentration Latino-heritage states like Texas and Arizona have institutionalized de facto discrimination against Latinos. One of the most publicized and acrimonious early assaults in this troubling national trend occurred in Texas in 2010, when the state's curriculum committee made significant changes to the Texas's history and social studies requirements at the expense of minorities. Texas textbooks have been a source of consternation for educators nationwide for at least two reasons. First, Texas is one of the largest buyers of textbooks, and the impact of those books and the national pedagogies they instantiate have considerable reach. Second, the state's Board of Education in 2010 approved a "social studies" curriculum that elided historical cause-effect relations by ascribing "conservative values" and exalting Republican Party ideology at the expense of history proper. For example, by the time the Texas textbooks were published and became part of the statewide curriculum in 2015, they had passages stating that Moses — from the Book of Exodus — influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, these state-sanctioned textbooks juxtaposed Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address with that of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and they made no mention, as they previously had, of the Supreme Court's first Black justice, Thurgood Marshall, or Mexican American labor leader and Latino civil rights icon César Chávez. Despite protestations from educators and parents alike, the committee rejected calls to include more Latino peoples in the state's education curriculum, even though the state has a large Mexican American population. The historical whitewashing instantiated in 2010 and made respectable by its appearing in schoolbooks can be understood as a broader attempt at creating national pedagogies that inculcate in students a version of a national past devoid of Latino and Black agency. Indeed, from the distance, 2010 appears to have been a signal year for the collective disenfranchisement of Blacks and Latinos from the national imaginary, that is, the storehouse of images and stories the country tells itself about its past, in order to understand its present and its futures. Let us quickly gloss how anti-immigrant initiatives also made their way into state laws and statutes.

In Arizona the passage of the state's Senate Bill 1070 on April 3, 2010, gave local law enforcement the authority to detain citizens and cultural citizens alike without due process if they appear "illegal." Among SB 1070's many controversial provisions, it institutionalized de facto racial profiling by allowing law enforcement officials to question anyone deemed "reasonably suspicious" of being a "noncitizen." Though in June 2012 the Supreme Court struck down most of what came to be known as Arizona's "driving while Brown law" and the "show me your papers law," it still kept intact the provision that allowed law enforcement officials to ask "anyone suspected of being in the country illegally for their immigration papers" or face incarceration. Laws modeled on Arizona's SB 1070 have now been enacted in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia, and copycat legislation is awaiting review in many other states. Additionally, other legal initiatives to delegitimize knowledge projects critical of white supremacy have also taken root in Arizona, yet another state with a high Latino population.

In 2010, Arizona's House Bill 2281 — known as the "anti–ethnic studies law" — further increased the state's control over the Latino body by allowing the state to police knowledge production. The law was directed specifically against an experimental Tucson curriculum for elementary, middle, and high school students that emphasized critical thinking and had a focus on Mexican American and Latino cultural and literary history. The law made it "illegal" to "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," to allow classes that are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or to advocate ethnic solidarity. That the law was passed despite increased graduation rates for Latinos who were reaching graduation parity with Anglo-American students is emblematic of the extent of the state's reach and willingness to delimit Latino social mobility by thwarting educational equity through punitive laws. In other words, Arizona's HB 2281 understood Latino knowledge production and dissemination as an assault on national identity, breeding division, separatism, and conflict, rather than as a largely unsuccessful multicultural attempt at remedying preexisting structural inequalities perpetuated in and through national pedagogies of exclusion. Confounding culture with the politics of the state, Arizona's HB 2281 simply made what it understood to be Latino historical representation and pride the enemy of the state. This despite lawsuits challenging Arizona's HB 2281 that pointed to empirical evidence of increased Latino graduation rates. When the case reached the Supreme Court, most provisions of the anti–ethnic studies law were upheld. What possible consequences can emerge to trouble democratic practice under such circumstances?

Most recently, "denaturalization," the process through which citizens can be legally stripped of their citizenship and due process rights, has emerged in the Trump administration's arsenal against Brown people. Denaturalization is "legal" and can occur against an individual in either civil or criminal proceedings. To prevail against a citizen, the government must either prove that the person in question was never statutorily eligible for citizenship in the first place, or that the person obtained their citizenship by concealing or omitting, wittingly or not, a material fact. Writing in the Nation, Rafia Zakaria makes explicit the stakes involved:

The Trump administration's push to pursue denaturalization should be considered as one piece of the jigsaw that is closing off the United States to nonwhite individuals. Beginning with the Muslim ban, now upheld by the Supreme Court, extending to the vastly sped up ICE raids in areas with large Latino populations, to the detention and separation of asylum-seeking families at the border, these bits and pieces come together to reveal a worldview that accords with white nationalism.

Zakaria notes that two operations have emerged for this purpose. The first is the Janus Operation, based in Los Angeles; as of this writing this operation has created over twenty-five hundred cases that have been reported for prosecution and that may result in denaturalization. The second is Operation Second Look, which, as Zakaria notes, "will review hundreds of thousands of petitions to locate the tiniest of discrepancies" in order to denaturalize U.S. citizens.


Excerpted from "Being Brown"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Lázaro Lima.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction. On Being Brown
in the Democratic Commons

Part I. A latina for the nation
1. Sonia Sotomayor and “the Latino Question”
2. Sonia Sotomayor’s Elusive Embrace

Part II. Losing Sonia Sotomayor
3. Sonia Sotomayor, the Mediapheme
4. Sonia Sotomayor and Other States of Debt

Coda. Thinking Otherwise: Sonia Sotomayor and
the Emergence of Latino Legal Thought

Selected Bibliography

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