"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.