The telenovella over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor took an interesting twist recently when it was revealed that the U.S. Appeals Court judge had, in the 1990s, announced during a panel discussion that she was “the perfect affirmative action baby” because she was “Puerto Rican, born and raised in the South Bronx, and from what is traditionally described as a socio-economically poor background.”
Sotomayor admitted that, while her grades were good, her test scores “were not comparable to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale.” Though, she noted, “not so far off so that I wasn’t able to succeed at those institutions.” Yet, she said, had the schools relied only on test scores, “it would have been highly questionable (that) I would have been accepted.”
Those remarks were captured on videotape, part of a cache that Sotomayor provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will begin confirmation hearings July 13. I know exactly what Sotomayor meant. She was using her experience — a success story — to both call into question the ability of test scores to predict college performance and extol the virtues of race-conscious and class-conscious admissions policies. She was speaking with both arrogance and humility — acknowledging that she had help getting started on her path but speaking with the confidence that comes with knowing that her own talent and hard work had carried her the rest of the way.
Do you know who else has often acknowledged publicly that he is a product of affirmative action? Former Secretary of State Colin Powell. And when Powell says it, he comes across as saying: “Look, just because I got a few breaks early in my career because of a government program, doesn’t mean that my record doesn’t speaks for itself. That should prove that the program has value and doesn’t just benefit the unqualified.” Nevertheless, judging from the reaction of Sotomayor’s critics — especially white males on talk radio still smarting from her comments about how a white male judge might not reach the same conclusion as a “wise Latina” — there are folks out there who just don’t understand her remarks.