If you are losing hope watching the current sequestration budget impasse, take heart in an unlikely place: Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World. As I read that book in the context of the latest manufactured D.C. crisis, I cannot help but see my own world differently.
We can talk about race and class in America all we want but Justice Sotomayor describes better than any sociologist or politician just what a different planet you live on if you have education, power, and wealth. And what it feels like if you don’t.
She puts us in the Harvard/Radcliffe admissions office circa 1970, where everything from the oriental rug to the white couch to the perfectly coiffed hair of the admissions officer conspire to say: you don’t belong here if you’re from the Bronx.
We feel the accusatory stares of students and teachers who cannot believe that a Puerto Rican woman would be at Princeton but for affirmative action.
We experience her self-discovery and actualization as she realizes, from her perch in an elite university, that the reason she and so many of her peers felt stupid in grade school was because they were only half lingual in two languages, Spanish and English, and how so many Puerto Rican schoolchildren just assume that this must mean they’re dumb.
When we talk about the importance of diversity in our power structures, we cannot just think of it as a morally preferable state of affairs but rather an expansion and improvement of our institutions to the benefit of all. Someone who has experienced what Justice Sotomayor describes is exactly the kind of person you WANT to be the judge when you yourself are the accused. Someone who can see how alienation between worlds, classes, and languages can result in a rush to judgment. This is as true in a contract dispute as it is in an illegal search and seizure case.
I can’t help but wonder… What does President Obama think when he reads this book? Or First Lady Michelle Obama, herself a Princeton grad like Justice Sotomayor? Recognition? Affirmation? Frustration? All of it?
And what about the other Supreme Court justices? In their conferences, how does Justice Sotomayor illuminate the issues with her powerful experiences, viewpoints, and communication skills? Will she be to this Court what Chief Justice Earl Warren was to his, persuading the other justices the way a committee chairman might go about winning a majority of members for the vote?
Finally, in a strange way, I even start to understand the House Republicans in the latest budget battle a little better as a result of this book. Just as Sonia Sotomayor saw the world of education, wealth, and privilege as an utterly foreign realm, so too does the white southern male view the Puerto Rican justice as an aberration. Same with the African-American president. Their world is turned upside down by these newcomers to the power structure, forcing a retreat to the familiar if nihilistic corner of Hell-no-ism.
Perhaps, too, there is commonality. The white southern male views with suspicion any power grab inflicted by the northern establishment. They see themselves as from a different world than that of Washington or New York, just as the Puerto Rican from the Bronx might view herself as entirely foreign to the financial centers of Manhattan or San Francisco. Perhaps there is mutual alienation and suspicion.
My allegiance invariably comes down on the side of he or she who felt the sting of exclusion the most, since this will be the person to empathize with me most when I’m flat on my back. In this case, I sleep better at night knowing that the judiciary is being led by nine robed scholars who include in their ranks Sonia Sotomayor. Hope lives on.