Sotomayor a racist? Hardly, South Bronx says
But growing up in a 'minority-majority' neighborhood does shape one's view of the world, residents say.
As Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor makes the rounds meeting key senators on Capitol Hill this week, the South Bronx where she was raised and much of the city she still calls home are rippling with pride – orgullo, in Spanish.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, people here along Bruckner Boulevard bristle at the attacks against Judge Sotomayor by conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who have called her a racist. While each has toned down his criticism in the past day, many in this multicultural and predominantly Democratic borough believe the attacks themselves show a lack of understanding about how growing up in a "minority-majority" neighborhood shapes one's view of the world.
At the Caribe Fruits and Vegetables market on Westchester Avenue, where guavas and plantains sit next to a cooler full of Coke, Luis Irizarry calls Sotomayor "one of the best."
"We Puerto Ricans are very proud," says the retired postal worker, who came from Puerto Rico 35 years ago. "She grew up right here. What she's going to do for the Latin people is going to be a big surprise: Latin people will feel differently about themselves because she's on the court."
At the community center of the Bronxdale Houses, the project where Sotomayor grew up, college junior Derrick Hewley of Dominican and African-American descent puts it this way:
"It feels like if anyone from the Bronx can attain such a high position, it shows us that we can all do that," he says. "It gives me hope. I'm excited to be part of the Bronx and representing the Bronx."
This is a community that is so racially and ethnically mixed, he says, that "nobody up here ever says, 'You're Puerto Rican or you're Dominican so I'm not going to hang with you,' " he says. "We get to know the person first."
There is also a strong sense among some here that the type of perspective in the Bronx is still missing in some crucial parts of mainstream American culture. That's why Sotomayor's nomination is seen as such a huge step.
"She will bring compassion," says Jose Mulero, who came to the United States as a teenager 50 years ago. "I'm not saying white people can't be compassionate or that they discriminate, necessarily, but white people think often of themselves. Latin people, minorities, we think of us all together."
That might sound to some exactly like the kind of reverse racism that critics have charged Sotomayor with. She said in a speech in 2001: "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." Through the White House, Sotomayor has made clear that was a poor choice of words.
But in that same speech, she also talked about the tension in America between being "a melting pot and a salad bowl."
"We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence," she said. "Yet we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and colorblind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud."