The Affirmative on Affirmative Action
I just finished reading My Beloved World by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
It’s a delightfully readable and inspirational book by a woman who admittedly struggled with writing cogently well into her college years.
Sotomayor grew up in the projects in the Bronx. She contracted juvenile diabetes as a child, and because her parents were too squeamish to learn how to properly give her the insulin injections that were necessary to sustain her young life, she learned to do so herself at the tender age of seven.
Sotomayor’s father died when she was nine. Her mother, a native of Puerto Rico, came to the US mainland as a young woman, herself orphaned, when she signed up for the Women’s Army Corps during WWII. She worked hard all her life, and even as a widow managed to provide her two children with a private Catholic school education. She preached to her children continuously about the importance of getting an education.
Justice Sotomayor’s Puerto Rican heritage insured that she had a rich community and family life nurtured by the love and support of her parent’s extended families. It also helped to insure that she received the best education available in the United States due to affirmative action admissions policies at the Ivy League institutions she attended–Princeton and Yale.
But when Sonia began her education at Princeton, she was at an academic and cultural disadvantage. Her knowledge of the wider world outside of her home in the Bronx was limited. She was not familiar with higher forms of literature and had never attended an advanced learning class or had a private tutor, like so many of her more privileged classmates had. She struggled with writing essays due to a lack of schooling in proper grammar and syntax and the colloquialism of her humble upbringing.
But what Sonia lacked in schooling and cultural development, she more than made up for in determination and intelligence. She may have had a slow start at Princeton, but her excellent academic performance and her civic engagement in the school earned her membership in Phi Beta Kappa and the coveted Pyne Prize for “excellent scholarship, strength of character and effective leadership”, at Princeton, and a spot on the Yale Law Review later on. She graduated Princeton summa cum laude in 1976 and went on to complete her law degree at Yale.
The trajectory of Sonia Sotomayor’s law career was not typical of a Yale graduate but was indeed indicative of her commitment to public service and the greater good. She worked primarily in small law firms before accepting a position in the DA’s office in New York. There she honed her skills at interpreting the finer points of criminal law along with her propensity for understanding how the law actually affects individual lives, a critical skill for someone who would one day be administering justice at the highest level of the U. S. judicial system.
Sonia Sotomayor dreamed about being a judge from the time she was a young girl watching Perry Mason on television. Her autobiography describes the measured, intuitive and methodical path she took to achieve her private dream. That and the personal nature of her narrative gives us a window into the steadiness of character and the agility of mind she possesses that has served her so well throughout her life and esteemed career.
In 1992 her appointment to the U.S. district court under the G.W. Bush administration was a major accomplishment for a 38 year old Latina woman from the Bronx. In 1998 she took a seat on the US Second District Court of Appeals.
In 2009, Sotomayor was nominated by President Barak Obama for a seat on the Supreme Court. Upon her acceptance, she became the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history.
The story of Sonia Sotomayor is the story of America. It is a testament to the American ideal of equal rights and opportunities for everyone.
When I was a young woman, working as a contracts administrator in a construction firm, the owner of the business quizzed me if I would be uncomfortable if he hired a black man who had applied to fill an opening in the accounting office. I was shocked that such a question would even be raised, that a persons skin color would even be considered to be a potential disqualification for his or her employment. It was then that I realized the absolute necessity of programs that insured equal opportunity in the workplace for people of color.
I believe stories like Sotomayor’s need to remain part of any discussion or debate for programs of affirmative action or equal opportunity. We hear so much from the opponents of such programs about the unfairness of them and how they convey special benefits upon people simply because of their race.
I can’t help but wonder how many of those opponents have ever had first hand knowledge of what race discrimination feels like. Have their ancestors ever had to fight to use a public restroom, sit where they chose to on a bus, or attend the school of their choice?
I do believe that affirmative action should always be expansive enough to consider economic disadvantage under it’s umbrella of protection and should not be based solely on a persons minority status.
The last words in My Beloved World are these:
I am blessed. In this life, I am truly blessed.
That same grateful attitude prevails throughout Justice Sotomayor’s book. I perceive that it has propelled her forward each step of her way. She did not take affirmative action and the opportunity it provided to her for granted, she took it and ran with it, and through her own diligence and hard work, she multiplied it’s blessing in her life exponentially.
Americans are blessed. Truly. And yet in these times of ever widening income inequality and re-emergent racial tensions, who can deny that some of us are most assuredly more blessed than others? Are the blessings that America conveys to her children abundant enough to be shared with those among us who would aspire to things normally outside the realm of practical possibility?
I believe that they are.
©2018 by Ilona Elliott
Copyright © 2013 by Sonia Sotomayor