Sotomayor: Another Minority Advocate Missing the Point

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, was the guest today on my absolute favorite radio program, FreshAir from WHYY. On today’s show, host Terry Gross interviewed Sotomayor on a variety of subjects — ranging from her personal background to her beliefs on affirmative action. As interesting as the interview 1 was, it hit on a pet peeve of mine regarding how to categorize and/or identify the disadvantaged in our country.

Raised in the Bronx during the 1950’s–1960’s, Sotomayor had a modest upbringing as the daughter of a nurse and a tool-and-die worker. She describes going to college at Princeton University as a real eye-opener for her limited point of view from poverty. It was clear from her interview that she considers herself to have come from a radically disadvantaged childhood, and I have to take some issue with that.

I should first say that I’m not writing this post to start some sick “who had it worse growing up” contest with Justice Sotomayor. Instead, I’m writing this post to start the conversation, again, about who qualifies as disadvantaged in our country. Sotomayor went to public school in the Bronx. I went to school in Cheatham County, TN. Here are some facts about the elementary school that I attended for K-6:

Black or White: Does it matter here?

  • We often had no air conditioning in a part of the country that can easily reach 100+ degrees. Best case, school would be cancelled and we would forego education altogether. Worst case, we suffered through it in classrooms as hot as ovens.
  • We had failing roofs. When it rained, the custodian distributed buckets and pans to the classrooms to catch the dripping water — and we moved our desks as best we could to keep dry.
  • We lacked sanitary bathroom facilities. The smell of urine was so strong that students covered their faces with their hands when they passed the bathrooms in the hall.
  • We either had no textbooks for class, the textbooks were long out of date, the textbooks were worn to pieces, there were not enough to go around, or some combination of each of these issues.
  • We had no paper for things like tests. Teachers wrote the questions on the blackboard, and we copied them to paper we had to provide from home.
  • We were served “state approved” lunch menus where cheaper alternatives were substituted in place of more expensive, healthier ingredients. For example, potato chips were substituted for lettuce on the salad bar.
  • We had too few teachers to segregate children by grade level; one class might stretch a teacher across 2–3 grade levels.
  • We had too few classrooms to accommodate the students. Some children studied in make-shift classrooms in rented trailers.
  • We had no safety shelters even though students were studying in mobile trailers in tornado zones.
  • We had no music education program.
  • We had no art education program.
  • We had no physical education program.

I mention all of these issues here ad nauseam to emphasize that disadvantage is not just related to racial minority status — this is an example of one of many poor, predominately white rural schools in The South. In the bigger picture, disadvantage simply correlates with poverty. It’s a mistake to focus too much on the race of the students when evaluating how to help people improve their lot in life.

When asked about affirmative action, Justice Sotomayor indicated that, “affirmative action doesn’t just level the playing field, it actually introduces minorities to playing fields they never knew existed”. I could not agree more; however, I believe that applying affirmative action to our citizens solely on the basis of race significantly dilutes its effect.

Applying affirmative action policies equally to both African-American students in poverty and to African-American students of the middle class excludes entire segments of the population who are living in poverty and who are in equal need of enfranchisement. Just as when Justice Sotomayor first visited Princeton University and discovered a new, previously incomprehensible playing field, so too would white students who have been long accustomed to dodging leaky roofs and avoiding the open sewage in their halls of education.


  1. If you would like to hear a rebroadcast of the show, click to stream it from the NPR website.

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