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  • July 13, 2009

News Commentary: Sonia Sotomayor: Is She, Or Is She Not?

by Susan Welch, Hewitt Research –

Following President Obama’s selection of Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court, people of every color applauded. If she makes it to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic to hold the office.

Or would she?

Shortly after she was nominated, Sotomayor’s detractors began pointing out that Benjamin N. Cardozo, a Supreme Court judge who served in the 1930s, was the first Hispanic justice, because both of his parents were Portuguese.1 As the U.S. media debated the issue, the Pew Hispanic Center stepped into the fray to resolve some of the underlying confusion. The Pew report2 focused on the broader issue of defining Hispanics, attempting to sort through the confusion around terms such as “Hispanic” and “Latino.”

Ironically, the term “Hispanic” was coined by U.S. officials to support categorization for the 1980 Census3 . Originally, it applied to people who came from Spanish-speaking countries that were colonized by Spain—including Spain itself. However, as such, the term creates confusion when it attempts to describe race: Why would a descendant of White Europeans who lived in Peru for generations be Hispanic, when someone with a similar genealogy, but living in Brazil (colonized by the Portuguese and thus not Spanish-speaking), would not be Hispanic?

The term “Latino” might resolve some of the confusion. Unlike “Hispanic,” “Latino” is a Spanish word. Anyone from a Latin American country, would be classified as a Latino (or, for a woman, Latina). As such, Brazil is included in the mix. Seems simple, doesn’t it? But having both terms (Hispanic and Latino), with little clarity around when to use which, creates confusion. Having even a rudimentary awareness that the various countries in Central and South America can be culturally different brings even more confusion. The greatest confusion comes when one realizes these terms are blanket labels applied to real people, who may be uncomfortable classified in either category.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times and confirmed in earlier Pew studies, people from Latin America tend to view themselves as coming from their country of origin first, and Latino/Hispanic second—if at all4 . The Latino/Hispanic Sotomayor/Cardozo brouhaha has some in the media wondering if we should do away with the generic Latino/Hispanic classification altogether.

Employers are faced with this difficulty on a more immediate level: In ensuring their diverse mix of workers is effective, they may need to somehow categorize individuals—their real workers—to better deliver support and job tools to them. Offending these workers by mis-labeling them risks messing up the mix. What is the correct approach for employers? What term should employers use, if any?

Of course, no right answer exists. But remembering the Inclusion Paradox’s guidance around calling out differences, an employer’s best approach—whether they use the term Hispanic, Latino, or something else—is to use the term with sensitivity; to recognize that while the label may need to exist for convenience sake it is, nonetheless, a label; and to continually seek to understand the differences existing among all individuals.



1 Several sources reported this news. See in particular Would Sotomayor really be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court,” by Antonio Olivo, Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2009.

2 Jeffrey Passel and Paul Taylor, “Is Sotomayor the Court’s First Hispanic?” Pew Hispanic Center, May 28, 2009.

3 Antonion Olivio, “Would Sotomayor really be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court?” Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2009.

4 Gregory Rodriguez, “The Generic Latino,” Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2009.


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