By Dr. Pamela D. Reed
“Make me do it.”
-Barack Hussein Obama
The relevance of the above challenge issued by then-Senator Barack Obama will soon become obvious.
For now, let me first congratulate Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee for the soon-to-be vacant seat of retiring high court Associate Justice David Souter.
Obama’s historic nomination of the first Latina to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) comes on the heels of a months-long full court press by Hispanic organizationslike the Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, not to mention Women’s groups, all advocating for just such a groundbreaking pick.
No sooner than it was determined that Hispanics accounted for 7.4 percent of the 131 million people who voted in November–of which 67 percent cast their votes for the Obama-Biden ticket–the Hispanic judicial lobby moved into high gear.
Mind you, these numbers pale in comparison to African Americans who comprised a record 12.1 percent of the total vote, 95 percent of whom voted for Obama.
But who’s counting, right?
Ramona Romero, Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) president, certainly was. Almost immediately, the HNBA launched the Hispanic Appointments Project, and she reached out to President-elect Obama, only 10 days after the election–and months before he took office.
“The presence of a Latino or Latina at the conference table could add a needed ‘special voice’ to the Supreme Court’s deliberations and decisions– a voice that can speak about the law as it affects U.S. Hispanics with the authority that only firsthand knowledge can provide,” she wrote.
In other words, they “made” him do it…and good for them (and hopefully for all who would otherwise be marginalized judicially).
Of course, Team Obama insists that politics did not factor into the Sotomayor nomination, and that the president simply–organically– chose “the most qualified person for the job.” And, in all fairness, President Obama might very well have made the same choice, absent the very public lobbying effort.
But since Hispanics left nothing to chance, we’ll never know, will we?
Whatever the case–assuming that Sotomayor is confirmed to the SCOTUS–there will now be two representatives of the female perspective on that august judicial body, and one of the Hispanic. In my view, this is a beautiful thing.
What is profoundly problematic, however, is the fact that there is still not one solitary Black advocate.
Indeed, this is a glaring and unacceptable omission on the high court. Sure, there’s Clarence Thomas, but, in every way that matters, his is not a “Black seat.”
There, I said it.
I mean, we all know that his has been the deciding vote in a number of decisions that have all but wiped out affirmative action and other racial gains made during the tenure of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the SCOTUS. (And isn’t it just the cruelest of ironies that Thomas was the Sr. Bush’s choice to replace Marshall, the civil rights lion?)
It is as Romero said, “being Hispanic doesn’t always mean that you are grounded in the culture.”
By the same token, and for all intents and purposes, Clarence Thomas should not count in the “minority” tally on the Supreme Court, as he has shown no evidence of being willing or able to articulate–or appreciate, even– the predominant African American world view, shaped by centuries of enslavement, Jim Crow and continuing racial discrimination.
And am I the only one who finds it troublesome that, of the four widely reported finalists for the open SCOTUS seat–all women, three of whom were White–there was not one African American among the elite group?
This is all the more vexing when one considers that, according to a Pew Research Center report, “overall, among all racial, ethnic and gender groups, Black women had the highest voter turnout rate in November’s election [68.8 percent]–a first.”
So, are we to assume that there are no “qualified” African American female jurists worthy of even symbolic consideration for the Supreme Court? (And we are way beyond symbolism at this point.)
What about the Honorable Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, the 57-year-old Rhode Island Superior Court Justice, who–in April–was recommended by both Rhode Island senators for the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals?
Then there is the Honorable Ann Claire Williams, the 59 year-old U.S. Seventh Circuit Appellate Judge and globally acclaimed legal scholar. Among her many public service efforts, Judge Williams lead and taught at the first Kenyan Women’s Trial Advocacy Program for domestic violence attorneys. Williams has also been a prosecutor and faculty member at both Northwestern and John Marshall Schools of Law.
Of course, President Obama knows of these and many other imminently qualified Black female esquires worthy of elevation to the high court-including several law school deans. The question is: Why did the Obama Administration not even float any African American names?
Could it be because Black advocacy groups didn’t “make” him?
After all– when asked if he would be able to forge a lasting peace in the Middle East–Obama himself advised this very course of action to the questioner at a presidential campaign rally. Syndicated columnist Amy Goodman recounts this story in her commentary “Make Obama Keep his Promises.”
Obama is said to have repeated the famous story of how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt–upon hearing A. Philip Randolph’s assessment of the plight of Black America and what corrective actions were needed–reportedly issued this very same challenge to the civil rights legend.
Specifically, FDR reportedly challenged Randolph with this call to arms: “I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight…and I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit… But I would ask one thing of you…and that is, go out and make me do it.”
The presidents’ words echo and confirm Frederick Douglass’ learned declaration of almost a century earlier: “Power concedes nothing without demand.”
African Americans would do well to remember these historic lessons during the presidency of Barack Obama–along with the contemporary counsel of Sandra Finley, President and CEO of the League of Black Women, in her article “The League of Black Women’s Role in President Obama’s Administration: Homecoming.”
“You’ve watched this amazing election unfold for two years, don’t blink now,” Finley wrote. “The President-elect has promised to talk directly to you. Pay attention. Call, email and write your legislators. Tell them exactly how you want them to vote on funding health care, education, and your jobs in this economy.”
I would add that we must also make our voices heard with regard to the changing composition of the Supreme Court. Otherwise, we will emerge from the Obama era with Clarence Thomas still the lone Black face among the nine.
And if we were to sit by mutely and idly, allowing this miscarriage of justice to happen, we would deserve it. But, in that event, at least we would still have our “I was there” buttons, our Obama calendars/posters, and our J. Crew cardigan twin sets to show to our children and grandchildren.
What I am trying to say here is that African American organizations, particularly women’s, must get past the novelty of President Barack Hussein Obama, Black Man. Only then will we begin to place collective expectations on him, just as all valued political constituencies do in the American body politic.
As Finley wrote, Black women, have “worked together to help lift and elect Barack Obama to the highest office in the land.” Yes, we have done the heavy lifting, which is nothing new.
Zora Neale Hurston observed, in her classic novel Their Eyes were Watching God, that the Black woman has historically been “de mule uh de world.”
Well, I say, no more. I agree with Finley: “This is our moment too.” In other words, it is high time for a Black woman to sit on the high court.
And this is not to dismiss the fact that President Obama has numerous highly visible, highly placed Black women in his administration, like senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, United Nations Ambassador, Dr. Susan Rice, or Desiree Rogers, White House social secretary, among others. Without question, these are all very important appointments, many of them firsts. For this, he should be applauded.
But the Supreme Court is a horse of another color.
Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.