Sonia Sotomayor and the Real Lessons of Affirmative Action

In a new memoir, the Supreme Court justice underlines the importance of optimism and perseverance.

Justice Sotomayor with her mother, Celina, after her investiture. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, will be released in just a few days, which means it will be available to the world just a few weeks before her conservative colleagues on the High Court (almost certainly) announce that they have struck down the policy of affirmative action in higher education. No surprise here. If there is one theme in the book, if there is one lesson from the wise Latina's remarkable life, it is that Sotomayor has always had a great gift for being in the right place at the right time.

Both in the short term and for posterity, Sotomayor's work will serve as a prebuttal to what Chief Justice John Roberts and company are poised to do. The presence on the Court of the newest justice herself, and her personal story of relentless achievement, are a direct answer, rich and detailed, to some of the harsher questions the conservatives posed in October when they held oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas. What is the value of affirmative action in academia? Well, in the best-case scenario, it can produce a Sonia Sotomayor.

"There are uses to adversity," the 111th justice in American history writes, "and they don't reveal themselves until tested." She was tested. Boy, was she tested. Her parents fought. Her father was an alcoholic. He died at an early age. She was diagnosed as a child with diabetes. She had to give herself the insulin shots. The family was never financially comfortable. Her explanation for why she is where she is today in life? "I've never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with."

If you buy this book because you want insight into Justice Sotomayor's legal philosophy, you will be disappointed. You are better off reading her dissent in the Jicarilla Apache Nation case in 2011, or her more recent dissent in Hodge v. Kentucky -- a capital case last month in which all of her colleagues on the High Court blew off a condemned man's appeal, after the state supreme court had acknowledged that the man's trial lawyer was "constitutionally deficient" for failing to investigate or introduce any "mitigating evidence" on his client's behalf.

Sotomayor writes that the "very existence" of prosecutors and defense attorneys "depends on a shared acceptance of the law's judgment as properly superseding the passion of either side for a desired outcome." Ultimately, she writes, "the good of neither the accused nor society is served without the recognition that the integrity of the system must be set above the expedient purposes of either side." Perhaps the closest Justice Sotomayor ever comes in the book to revealing a core judicial philosophy is when she offers up this:

There is indeed something deeply wrong with a person who lacks principles, who has no moral core. There are, likewise, certainly values that brook no compromise, and I would count among them integrity, fairness and the avoidance of cruelty.

But I have never accepted the argument that principle is compromised by judging each situation on its own merits, with due appreciation of the idiosyncrasy of human motivation and fallibility. Concern for individuals, the imperative of treating them with dignity and respect for their ideas and needs, regardless of one's own views -- there too are surely principles and as worthy as any of being deemed inviolable.

But if you buy this book hoping for a personal story of perseverance, for a story about an imperfect person who rises above her circumstances through hard work, for a story about how both nature and nurture can be mastered, you will likely breeze through My Beloved World and recognize it as the confirmation hearing Sotomayor wanted but never received. Here is a woman who feared failure; here is a woman who constantly strove to do better; here is a woman who ultimately accepted the personal consequences of her professional choices. "In the end," she writes, "I sold my wedding ring to pay the lawyer who handled the divorce."

"I have always felt that the support I've drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure," she writes in an early passage about her personal journey. But the line also could serve as the epitaph for affirmative action itself. After all, school administrators seek diversity in their classrooms because when a student of one race or ethnicity "supports" a student of another -- intellectually, academically, or otherwise -- it's a transfer that transcends whatever words or gestures are shared. It's a transfer of cultural beliefs, and of backgrounds, something far greater than merely the sum of its parts.

Here's another brief passage from the book that tracks the story of affirmative action in America -- and, for that matter, of the larger political divide in America. "I was fifteen years old," Sotomayor writes, "when I understood how it is that things break down: people can't imagine someone else's point of view." Isn't "someone else's point of view" the essence of affirmative action in education? Here Sotomayor plays the mentor card: "I would warn any minority student today against the temptations of self-segregation; take support and comfort from your own group as you can, but don't hide within it."

This is what Sotomayor the Symbol really is. She has reached the pinnacle of her profession both by heeding the lessons of her wise Latin family and by accepting graceful help from the white world beyond. Without her own talent, and without her mother's remarkable dedication, she would probably not have gotten noticed by those who would help her. And without the presence of affirmative action in her life, those who had quickly noticed her would have had fewer ways in which to help her. She took from both worlds what she needed to succeed, and ever since has successfully straddled the divide between those worlds.

Surely this is not a bad thing, no matter what Justice Samuel Alito seems poised to say about it in the Fisher case. Justice Alito is one of many current justices whose face you would like to be studying as he reads this book. The George W. Bush appointee isn't merely an outspoken critic of affirmative action today -- he was among the most hostile questioners in Fisher and a virtual lock to vote against Texas' admissions policy -- but also was part of a conservative alumni group at Princeton that was sharply critical of such policies 40 years ago, when Sotomayor was attending classes there. (Alito graduated in 1972, Sotomayor in 1976.)

It's unlikely the two have ever spoken in depth about this period in their lives. It's got to be an uncomfortable topic. But this book speaks both to Alito Past and to Alito Present, and it's hard to imagine that Justice Alito won't see it as a response from his colleague to his own personal and professional choices. During his confirmation hearing in 2006, Justice Alito and his political allies tried to downplay this part of his life's story. On the contrary, Sotomayor seems eager to share with the world what life was like on the other end of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. She writes:

The Daily Princetonian routinely published letters to the editor lamenting the presence on campus of "affirmative action students," each one of whom had presumably displaced a far more deserving affluent white male, and could rightly be expected to crash into the gutter built of her own unrealistic aspirations. There were vultures circling, ready to dive when we stumbled. The pressure to succeed was relentless, even if self-imposed out of fear and insecurity. For we all felt that if we did fail, we would be proving the critics right, and the doors that had opened just a crack to let us in would be slammed shut again.

I wonder, too, what Justice Clarence Thomas will think when he reads this book -- if he reads this book. He has plenty in common with Sotomayor, more than he would likely care to admit. His memoir, My Grandfather's Son, you may recall, was a bitter, intemperate affair, a story of a man whose remarkable professional success had done little to temper the anger he clearly still feels toward many people, in and out of Washington, whose paths he crossed. There is virtually none of that in the Sotomayor book -- no hints of anger, no scorn, and certainly no manifestation of any lingering resentment in her public behavior behind the bench.

In the end, this book reminds us that the presence of Justice Sotomayor on the Supreme Court brings to that ancient institution precisely the sort of diversity it sorely needs. She is quite unlike any other justice who has ever served, which is a good thing, and she brings to her work a modern American perspective that can only enrich the law. In the end, it turns out that she's a wise Latina not because she has a brilliant legal mind, but because she so quickly understood her many limitations, resolved thoroughly to overcome them, successfully did so, and now is able to appreciate what she's accomplished. We should all be so wise.