By all conventional standards, Sonia Sotomayor is an intelligent, disciplined, hard-working woman who has accomplished a great deal in 54 years. Not only has she overcome the difficulties of growing up poor, raised mainly by a widowed mother, but she has also conquered the challenge of juvenile diabetes, a disease requiring careful monitoring and daily injections of insulin. She has performed exceedingly well in our best schools (Princeton, Harvard Law) and has reached the pinnacle of her profession with her current nomination to the Supreme Court. This story is impressive on its own merits but has been hijacked for political purposes into a singular blueprint for compassion, empathy and identification with the downtrodden.
Compare Sotomayor’s background with that of Clarence Thomas. A descendant of slaves, Thomas was abandoned by his father at the age of two and raised by a mother who worked as a domestic employee. The family was split with a younger sister living with relatives in another town and Clarence, his brother and mother living with his grandparents in Savannah. At the age of 10, he was taken to work at a local farm where his grandfather’s lessons of hard work were re-enforced by the strictures of manual labor. He was the only black student in his high school and the first person in his family to attend college. He received his J.D. from Yale Law School. This story too is impressive as a young boy faced down poverty, racism and class distinctions to achieve an eventual appointment to the Supreme Court.
What greeted Thomas’ nomination was a far cry from the reaction to Sotomayor. Nobody help up the conservative, anti-affirmative action candidate as a purveyor of compassion, empathy and identification with the downtrodden. His personal experience and difficult childhood counted for nothing in the enumeration of his qualifications, nor did the color of his skin appease his adversaries and convince them that he would contribute to the diversity of the court. Every positive that accrues to Sotomayor from her background of “impoverishment” was denied Thomas whose own background was arguably more difficult. Sotomayor was never the only Hispanic child in her school, and losing a father to death is far different than being willfully abandoned. Similarly, having a mother who works as a nurse is more socially acceptable than a mother who is a maid. But it’s not necessary to split hairs over who had it worse in order to make the point that over-praising certain people for the same things that get ignored in other people is patently manipulative and politically motivated.
Several people in my own family and circle of friends grew up in similar circumstances to Sotomayor. One cousin was raised in Brooklyn by a blind mother whose husband had abandoned her as soon as her blindness set in. He had to work during high school and put himself through Brooklyn College at night while working to support his mother during the day. A close friend was raised in the Bronx by a widowed mother who was a piece worker in the millinery trade. Though my friend was bright enough to be accepted at Bronx Science, she attended City College and worked after school. Neither of these people was recruited by an Ivy League school for scholarships to college or graduate school because their minority identification was Jewish, not Black or Hispanic. This too is a function of politics and being part of a politically correct quota.
And while life experience teaches many lessons, it’s important to remember that some of the most empathic and compassionate rulings from the bench were made by patrician white men who may not have experienced the lives or discrimination of the downtrodden, yet understood nevertheless the powerful imperatives of justice according to our constitution.
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