JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Growing up in Jersey City in the late 1950s, I thought the United States was an Italian country governed by the Irish. So it was a rather pleasant surprise for me when I moved out into the country and realized that this was a nation of white Protestants, governed by white Protestant men, for white Protestant men.
Those were the days, my friends, we thought they'd never end. But they did, and now we have a black president and he has nominated a "Latina," daughter of Puerto Ricans, to be a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor has led to a national dialogue worthy of "Saturday Night Live." The question on the table, or under it, is whether her growing up in public housing projects in the Bronx and her ethnicity have any impact on her views of law, life and empathy?
Did the life experience of the Founding Fathers, the writers of the Constitution that Obama and Sotomayor have pledged to defend, have any impact on that document?
Did the background of the Irish Catholics who ran the Jersey City of my boyhood have any effect on how they saw the world? Did the background and experience of the WASPs who ran the country back then have any effect on the laws they made and interpreted?
Duh! and duh!
In fact, the sixth Roman Catholic to serve on the court, an Irish Catholic judge from New Jersey, William Brennan, was asked repeatedly during his confirmation process in 1956 whether he would take his guidance from the pope rather than the Constitution. John F. Kennedy was asked the same thing when he ran for president in 1960. So was my wife, whose name is O'Neill, when she ran for the state Senate in California. Before Brennan's nomination, there had been 80 Protestant justices and five Catholics.
And, of course, until Sandra Day O'Connor, who is an Episcopalian, was appointed in 1981, all the justices were male and all but one, Thurgood Marshall, were white.
I wonder whether all those courts of white Protestant men were influenced by the lives they led? Duh!
Because of Judge Sotomayor's gender, we learn, she is a member of something called the Belizean Grove in New York, an organization of 125 accomplished women, which was formed 10 years ago as small bookend to the 130-year-old all-male Bohemian Grove, that secret society of accomplished men who pee on redwood trees deep in the California woods. There is no membership list, but it is a pretty safe bet that most Supreme Court justices over the years have been invited to the camaraderie and tree-wetting of the Bohemian Grove.
Does that make Sotomayor a crazed feminist who relates to and listens -- empathetically -- only to women, preferably Hispanic women? I doubt it. Actually, I don't remember anyone raising the question of whether Chief Justice Earl Warren, an enthusiastic Grover, listened and related only to men.
Now the times have changed, for the better I think. If Sotomayor is confirmed, which she should be, the court will actually have six Catholics, two Jews and one lonely white male Protestant.
Jersey City, once a dying railroad terminus famous for political corruption, has changed, too, from the place I knew. Its population has declined from more than 300,000 to about 220,000, but it is growing again. In fact, the place that didn't have a single bookstore when I was growing up, now is a magnet for offices and younger professionals and gentrifiers who can no longer afford Brooklyn or even Hoboken.
That's part of the story. All sorts of new people are the other part. The population is largely the caramel color of Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Italians now account for less than 7 percent of the population and the Irish for less than 6 percent. There are more Coptic Christians from Egypt now than there are people who trace their ancestry to Italy or Ireland. My father's Masonic Lodge -- Furman Reeves was, by the way, a Protestant county judge -- is now a Coptic church.
And Sonia Sotomayor? The majority of people in my hometown don't see anything odd or exotic about the lady from the Bronx. She looks a lot like them. She looks like an ordinary American in the year 2009.