Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Face of America

Lessons often come from strange quarters. The National Spelling Bee finals last week taught me plenty. As I looked at those eleven finalists I realized all over again how the face of America has changed dramatically. Kavya Shivashankar an eighth grader from Olathe, Kansas won the competition. The runner-up was Tim Ruiter a seventh grader from Centreville, Virginia. Ten of the eleven who participated in the finals had names that did not date back to the Mayflower. There were no Bills or Harrys or Janes in the final eleven. Anamika, Neetu, Tussah, Ramya, Sidharth, Aishwarya were a few of those who stood on the stage and spelled out the hard words. Two of the participants were home-schooled. One or two went to private schools. But most of them came from public schools.

When I first enrolled in a deep-South school sixty years ago I thought most everyone was Caucasian. Almost all of us were Baptists, Methodists or a few Pentecostal. I never met a Catholic or Jewish student until I went to high school. Even in college there were no African-Americans and only a handful from the Orient. We did not even know the term Hispanic. The word Muslim was not in our vocabulary. We were mostly white and almost all Southern. We had no idea of the discrimination and injustice that lurked close to that old Howard College campus in East Lake.

That quiet settled world is gone. The US Census from 2007 says that 15% of Americans today are from Hispanic descent. That’s 45.5 million people. It is estimated that by 2050 that 30% of our populace will be Hispanic. 1.1 million Hispanics have served our country in the Armed forces. I tried to find other ethnic figures but had no luck.

The spelling bee has taught me that our diversity is not simply found in La, Phoenix, Miami or New York. The spellers on that stage came from San Jose, West Palm Beach, Peoria, Terre Haute, Las Vegas and other places. The whole complexion of the nation has shifted radically.

I was taught all over again that nationality has nothing to do with intelligence. Those spellers were brilliant. Most of us could not begin to spell some of the words those seventh-eighth graders spelled correctly. White supremacy got lost in the shuffle a long time ago and we should rejoice.

President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court came about the same time as the spelling bee. Sonia Sotomayor--I had never heard that name. Where was she from? What was her background? I learned she was 54 years old. That she was born in the Bronx to parents from Puerto Rico. She lived in public housing and her mother raised her two children alone after her husband died when Sonia was nine.

She must have been as smart in her early years as those children in the spelling bee. She graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude and attended Yale Law School where she was the recipient of many honors. For three decades she has worked at almost every level of the judicial system. Her qualifications for Justice on the Supreme Court are strong as any candidate in our long history.

I think our President has made a good choice. We need some Judges with strange names that can speak to the diversity of our nation. Regardless of all the protests about Judge Sotomayor--every Judge makes his or her decisions filtered through the prism of their own particular journey and background. It is impossible for any judge to be totally unbiased. The rulings of the Court through the years certainly underlines this truth.

In a country that is the color of the rainbow I applaud those eighth and ninth graders that represent the richness of our diverse country. And I applaud President Obama’s choice in picking Sonia Sotomayor to be nominated as a Justice to the Supreme Court. In this nomination our President is simply forcing us to struggle with how united we really are. Like those boys and girls in the spelling bee, Judge Sotomayor represents America at its very best. “Liberty,” I believe the document reads, “and justice for all.” Even spellers. Even Judges. Even old white men like me.

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