Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Subtle forms of discrimination

In a side-bar article on Stuart Taylor's discussion of possible Supreme Court vacancies, Taylor lists the strengths and weaknesses of the likely nominees. Among Michael Luttig's weaknesses, Taylor notes:
With a round, boyish face that makes him look younger than he is, Luttig fits the chief-justice image less well than does Wilkinson.
Surely Taylor would never have said that one of the weaknesses of Larry Thompson, another possible nominee, was his "brown skin and tight, curly hair that fits the chief-justice image less well than Wilkinson" or that Edith Jones' lipstick and mascara places her below the standard.

Taylor would never say that about Thompson or Jones because he would instantly recognize the discrimination inherent in the view that the proper image of a chief justice is a tall, handsome white male were he discussing a black or a woman. The sentence would have been filtered before it hit the keyboard. But Taylor's filters were apparently disengaged when writing about Luttig, presumably because no race or gender issues triggered cautious thinking about the proper image of the chief justice.

This principle behind both situations is that how a person looks should not have any bearing on their ability to serve as a chief justice, no matter the manner by which the person diverges from the image of previous chief justices. Whether the person is black, Asian, female, or the owner of a round, boyish face, it shouldn't matter.

In none of this do I mean to criticize Taylor; I have more respect for his impartial and non-doctrinaire writing than any other figure in journalism. We all struggle to overcome the tendency to think someone's natural appearance reveals something about the person; even level-headed thinkers like Taylor and his editors.

UPDATE: Stuart Taylor sent me this response:
Dear Matt,

Fair comment, fairly presented. But I will say this in defense of my characterization: Luttig's boyish physicial appearance is POLITICALLY relevant just as Gonzales's and Thompson's and Garza's ethnicities are politicially relevant; indeed, I pointed out that each of those three are widely considered to be candidates in part because of their race.

It might not have occurred to me if I had relied solely on my own instincts that Luttig's boyish physical appearance might be a political handicap (although not necessarily an insuperable one) were he nominated to become Chief Justice. But at least two of the people I interviewed--including a veteran of confirmation battles past who is very much in the Luttig camp--volunteered without my asking that Wilkinson would be a more politically viable nominee for Chief Justice because he looks the part more than Luttig does. Their judgment was that for this reason, other things being equal, Wilkinson might well do better in the polls after televised hearings as a CJ nominee than Luttig would.

Sincerely, Stuart Taylor
He's right, of course, a person's appearance affects their political viability. But with all respect to Taylor, this was the point of my post. Stereotypes play a role in politics, and generally when they rear their head Taylor and his editors would be careful not to perpetuate them by treating them as facts. In this case the stereotype was presented in the author's voice without qualifiers, something National Journal's editors would not have allowed had the subject of the sentence been a black or female prospective nominee.

It would be better if people of Taylor's stature challenge the stereotype rather than reinforce it. At least that's how those of us with faces of a particular shape and description feel. : )


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