Sonia Sotomayor and Affirmative Action

imagesMy wife gave me Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir as a Valentine gift – with a catch. I had to read it on her e-reader, which she wanted me to try. Verdict: I like its ease of use, but might quibble about inability to scribble.

I had expressed interest in Sotomayor’s book after hearing some interviews. But actually, she had me at the title: My Beloved World. Though not everything in her world or mine is beautiful, I share the sensibility of that title.

One small criticism. Sotomayor relates at length how, in a high school speech, she focused on the famous 1964 Kitty Genovese case. The story was that Genovese’s brutal murder was watched by 38 witnesses, who did nothing; and ever since this has been a staple of societal critiques. Turns out the story  just isn’t true; it was bad press reporting. Apparently Sotomayor is unaware of that.

While studying at Princeton, Sotomayor joined an Hispanic political action group. An issue arose concerning a local hospital where treatment of Spanish-speaking patients often suffered because of a language barrier. But instead of denouncing the hospital, picketing, etc., Sotomayor helped organize a program for bilingual volunteers to assist with Latino patients, which proved highly successful. I liked that story.

images-2Another made me laugh out loud with delight. At Princeton Sotomayor got a computer data entry job; this was the 1970s punch-card era. Meanwhile, she was working on her senior thesis. At that time I was a PSC lawyer, and our briefs were typed onto “mats” for reproduction; so if you made any significant change, all subsequent pages had to be retyped. Sotomayor faced the same problem with her thesis. Until she had a bright idea: coding pieces of text onto her computer punch-cards, enabling her to make changes at will.

Sotomayor’s book gives this only a few lines, but I thought it was pretty stunning. As a college student, she basically invented, for herself, what came to be called word-processing; hers was the first Princeton thesis ever done that way. images-5It shows she was one smart cookie.

Which leads me to my main point. Sotomayor was smart, and did a lot right in pursuing her ambitions, but also was a beneficiary of affirmative action, and she knew that. It’s doubtful she’d have gotten into Princeton had her name been Smith.

I oppose affirmative action, insofar as it’s ethnically based. For one thing, the whole concept of “race” is largely a societal construct and deeply flawed from an objective standpoint. (We have a president who’s more literally “African-American” than most who wear that label, yet his mom was a white Kansan.) Secondly, non-white skin doesn’t necessarily correlate with being disadvantaged in today’s America. And as for all the “diversity” platitudes, I might be more persuaded were academia not rife with “speech codes” and other enforcements of political correctness, suppressing the kind of diversity that really matters most on campus: diversity of thought and opinion.  

But Sonia Sotomayor’s case shows how affirmative action – if you must call it that – should operate. Basing college admissions or hiring, etc., strictly on grades and/or test scores is wrong because they reveal only part of what’s important about a person and are actually poor predictors of general success. (See my post on The Marshmallow Test.)

Cartoon by Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Cartoon by Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Now, Sonia Sotomayor was not a textbook case of rising from disadvantage; though she was a Puerto Rican kid from Bronx’s “projects,” with an alcoholic father, her mother was a health care professional and she got a decent education in Catholic schools. But still, coming from that general environment, her path was not easy, and getting herself to where Princeton was even possible shows a panoply of personal characteristics that surely should count for more than mere test scores or grades. That Princeton chose her, over some other kids with higher numbers but born to privilege, was entirely justified. Indeed, that was a merit-based decision, not mere ethnicity-based affirmative action. Proper affirmative action should mean giving due weight to the achievement of people who didn’t have life handed to them on a platter but had to overcome disadvantages to get as far they have. Those are the people society should invest in, and we’re a better society for doing so, not only for those individual beneficiaries, but for everyone.

Unfortunately, this we are not doing. A person like Sotomayor even applying to a school like Princeton is actually unusual. A recent nationwide survey shows that only 34% of high-achieving high schoolers, in the lower income quartile, go to one of the 238 most selective colleges. For those in the higher income quartile, it’s 78%. The lower income group tends to be unaware of opportunities at elite colleges and to go, if at all, to local schools, with fewer resources, lower graduation rates, and – perversely – higher cost, because top colleges would likely offer them generous financial aid. Obviously this stunts their career potential.

Thus we are throwing away a lot of talent. images-4Affirmative action should focus not on race or ethnicity, but on opening doors for high-achievers whose circumstances will otherwise likely hold them back.

Later, when Sotomayor was at Yale Law School and interviewing for jobs, a law firm partner openly voiced a surmise that she‘d gotten into Yale because she was Puerto Rican. She replied that being Puerto Rican hadn’t hurt; but that graduating Princeton Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude hadn’t hurt either. (But Sotomayor wryly notes the irony that when first apprised of these accolades, she was ignorant of their meaning and had to look them up!)

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5 Responses to “Sonia Sotomayor and Affirmative Action”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    My knee-jerk reaction is that “affirmative action” is generally a positive thing and your essay certainly prompts me to think about it. And missed you at the discussion yesterday when I said “Capitalism is based upon Pinker’s elements of violence, whereas Socialism and Communism appeal to our “better angels.”

  2. frank S. Robinson Says:

    Reading the rest of Pinker’s book may disabuse you of this notion linking capitalism with violence. In fact, what capitalism promotes and thrives upon (as Adam Smith elucidated) is cooperation and trust among participants to advance their mutual interests. As Kant foresaw, increased commerce fosters peace. Socialism and communism may indeed appeal to our better angels — but actually disserve them. You romanticize communism, but the Soviet Union was not a society you’d like living in, far more corrupt, materialist and soul-killing than any capitalist society.

  3. muggleinconverse Says:

    I have never been able to come up with a firm stance on Affirmative Action. I see where the need arises, I understand the flaws. I favor equality but we don’t live in an equal world. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it hurts. I fully agree that circumstances should be the indicator, not superficial qualities.

  4. WhamaJama Says:

    A 1999 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found no benefit to a student’s choice to attend a more selective school over one that was less selective. However, it did find that disadvantaged students benefited disproportionately when they had the choice to attend, and did subsequently attend, the more selective school.

    Simply stated, a high performing student generally does well whether they attend either Harvard or Podunk U, but a high performing disadvantaged student does even better when they go to Harvard. Thus, as a Nation we may do well to ensure the disadvantaged and motivated have all the support required to attend more selective schools because we will raise the national income by doing so.

    http://m.nber.org//papers/w7322.pdf

  5. Didius Julianus Says:

    I’m sure Frank has addressed this elsewhere and I will be reading his postings to catch up on the discussion: I will submit for consideration that no matter what system is in place in a society, unless people as a whole understand human nature (and especially that they are not exempt) and try to balance their selfish interests with those of society the outcome will always be bad for freedom and the individual.

    Power seekers succeed no matter what the system in place. The psychology of this type, over time, leads to tyranny. And thus has civilization gone through its cycles as societies become more and less aware of this: rinse, wash, repeat…

    A philosophical/moral/ethical/dare I say religious awareness of this can, at least sometimes, slow this cycle and allow people to enjoy freedom from tyranny for longer periods before the cycle starts anew.

    (I used to be a regular customer of Frank’s for ancient coins many years ago and now live in New Zealand. I will have to try the international mail and see how that works…)

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