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Sonia Sotomayor and a dangerous vat of acid

Sorry, no punchline to that title.

Jan. 29th, 1999, Milwaukee, Wis. - It was so cold outside that morning that I could see my breath. How do I remember, you ask? 'Cause it was Wisconsin in January. You can always see your breath.

As soon as I arrived at work, the police scanners on my desk started going crazy. At the time I was the "cops" reporter, a coverage beat that encompasses fire and medical emergencies too.

All the scanner activity was about an explosion that had occured earlier that morning at an industrial plant on the city's south side. A crane operator had lowered a large piece of metal into a 10-foot high vat full of a corrosion treatment chemical. The chemical was water reactive though, and aparently the metal had gathered condensation as it sat overnight. So when the crane operator lowered the damp metal into the vat, the 1,200 degree chemical exploded, burning the crane operator over most of his body.

The city editor on duty, having heard the same explosion news I'd heard on the scanners, stood and began to look around the room to see who was available to send to the accident scene. I left to work on another story. When I got back to the newsroom an hour later, another writer was working on the explosion, but he was having a hard time with some of the fine details. I offered to take a crack at it, but the editor said the other writer had it under control.

The other writer did not have it under control. So again, I offered to help. The editor grew exasperated and gave me a mini-lecture on how every reporter worth a damn should be able to give himself a crash course on a topic and go and cover it intelligently. Then he asked something to the effect of "What do you bring to this story that he doesn't?"

So I told him. Less than two years earlier, I had closed out a six year career as a machinist on the U.S. Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va. While working at the (now defunct) Naval Aviation Depot, one of my responsibilities in my machine shop was to maintain and monitor the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) book that contained a list of all the chemicals - hazardous and theoretically harmless - that we used. The MSDS book also contained details of the types of injuries each chemical could cause, the types of accidents that could happen when the chemicals came in contact with certain materials, how they should all be stored and handled, and what should be done in the event of an accident.

So yes, any good reporter should be able to cover everything. But in the case of a story about a chemical explosion, a reporter with personal experience using dangerous chemicals, monitoring their use, and even working with the Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration to make sure our monitoring books (MSDS) were up to date, is much better suited to report on things than a reporter whose work-related education is limited to the usual college classes.

What does this have to do with Sotomayor? Much has been made over this quote from a speech she gave 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,”

Without any context, that comment was out of order and Sotomayor was wrong for making such a broad generalization.

BUT, her sentiment was correct. And before anyone blusters and shakes a fist at their computer screen think for a moment. This post is not about Sotomayor's personal politics, or partisanship. It is about reaction to that quote. This does not have to be about race. You can make it about race if you want. But when I say the sentiment is correct, I mean about broad experiences vs. narrow experiences.

In the analogy of the chemical explosion story, I made that point. My colleague and I were both able reporters. But I was better suited for that particular assignment because my professional experiences were broader and more relevant than his.

If you and I are both computer programmers, and you've programmed for Company A, and I've programmed for companies A, B, and C, then my experiences are broader than yours. And my insights to the world of professional programming may be deeper than yours.


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Jeni Hill Ertmer

Quite frankly, I don't see what is the big deal about that particular statement of Sotomayor's. It is true and I wonder if it is the fact that it is the truth that bothers those who think poorly of her for having said that.
I don't believe people who have grown up without experiencing even a hint of poverty or discrimination or lack of a much needed education for whatever reasons, can understand the impact these things and many others can and will make on the lives of the people affected by these type of events. They may try to empathize and perhaps can to some small degree, but to truly understand what goes on in the minds of those who walk those paths and to try to help them in any way at all, one has to have at least had a smidgen of contact with the issue(s). JMHO there, that's all.


I'd have to disagree on this one; a member of SCOTUS is expected to give an objective judgment on the constitutionality of a case. They are not judging who was wrong or right because of personal criteria, but strictly on the merits of whether the case is covered by the constitution. They are not sitting on the average civil or criminal case, but are there only to see how the constitution applies. I'm more interested in the judge's understanding of the constitution than what sort of problems they had growing up.
Just my opinion.

Christine Thresh

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences..."
She said a WISE Latina woman, she didn't say a dumb Latina woman. I think wise women (and wise men) can be very good judges.

Also, speaking of empathy -- what's wrong with empathy? She could have empathy for corporations because she worked for them. Empathy is a good quality if it allows one to understand how someone thinks.


I don't think a wise Caucasian woman would get away with saying that.


I agree with you about the news story… I agree with you about the idea of an expanded broader scope of experience vs a narrow scope.

My question is this: Is her experience broader because of her race? Or is it just different?

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