Sunday, June 07, 2009
6811: The Supreme Court’s New Odd Couple.
From The New York Times…
For Sotomayor and Thomas, Paths Diverge at Race
By Jodi Kantor and David Gonzalez
If Judge Sonia Sotomayor joins Justice Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, they may find that they have far more than a job title in common.
Both come from the humblest of beginnings. Both were members of the first sizable generation of minority students at elite colleges and then Yale Law School. Both benefited from affirmative action policies.
But that is where their similarities end, and their disagreements begin. For the first time, the Supreme Court would include two minority judges, but ones who stand at opposite poles of thinking about race, identity and opportunity. Judge Sotomayor and Justice Thomas have walked parallel paths and yet arrived at contrary conclusions, not only on legal questions, but on personal ones, too.
Judge Sotomayor celebrates being Latina, calling it a reason for her success; Justice Thomas bristles at attempts to define him by race and says he has succeeded despite the obstacles it posed. Being a woman of Puerto Rican descent is rich and fulfilling, Judge Sotomayor says, while Justice Thomas calls being a black man in America a largely searing experience. Off the bench, Judge Sotomayor has helped build affirmative action programs. On the bench, Justice Thomas has argued against them with thunderous force.
The two may sit together on a court that is struggling over whether race and ethnicity should be a factor in legal thinking, each pitting his or her hard-won lessons against the other’s. Both judges are passionate about minority success, dedicating countless hours to mentorship. But Judge Sotomayor sees herself as the successful product of diversity initiatives, whereas Justice Thomas, who thinks of himself as a scarred survivor of those efforts, believes they often backfire.
The two judges have lived, not just argued, the strongest cases for and against affirmative action, said Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University. With both on the court, he said, “their voices are going to come to exemplify the contending positions.”
When Ms. Sotomayor and Mr. Thomas arrived at college — she at Princeton in 1972, he at Holy Cross in 1968 — they worried about the same thing: what others would think when they opened their mouths.
Ms. Sotomayor had grown up in the Bronx speaking Spanish; Mr. Thomas’s relatives in Pin Point, Ga., mixed English with Gullah, a language of the coastal South. Both attended Catholic school, where they were drilled by nuns in grammar and other subjects. But at college, they realized they still sounded unpolished.
Ms. Sotomayor shut herself in her dorm room and eventually resorted to grade-school grammar textbooks to relearn her syntax. Mr. Thomas barely spoke, he said later, and majored in English literature to conquer the language.
“I just worked at it,” he said in an interview years later, “on my pronunciations, sounding out words.”
For many East Coast colleges, it was a new era. After the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Holy Cross pledged to do its part in the civil rights movement by recruiting black students; just a few months later, Mr. Thomas became one of six in his freshman class.
Princeton was integrating not only by race and ethnicity, but also by gender. Ms. Sotomayor was one of 20 Hispanics in her class, students estimate. Princeton had admitted women just a few years earlier, and “husband-hunters,” as one of the alumni still campaigning against their presence called them, were vastly outnumbered at the college.
When the students arrived, they were subject to constant suspicion that they had not earned their slots. “It was a question echoed over and over again, not only verbally but in people’s thoughts,” said Franklin Moore, a former Princeton administrator. Ms. Sotomayor and Mr. Thomas, honors students in high school, considered themselves qualified. But to prove their critics wrong, they studied with special determination.
“We can’t let these people think we just came off the street without anything to offer Princeton,” said Eneida Rosa, another member of the Hispanic contingent, describing how seriously she and Ms. Sotomayor took their studies.
The two future judges led similar student organizations — Mr. Thomas helped found a black student group, while Ms. Sotomayor was co-chairwoman of a Puerto Rican one — and shared the same liberal politics. They graduated at the top of their classes. And afterward, they each headed to Yale Law School.
But perhaps because of their backgrounds, Judge Sotomayor and Justice Thomas came to view their campus experiences in very different ways.
Even by the standards of the Jim Crow South, Mr. Thomas’s childhood was marked by bitter blows and isolation. He was taunted not only by classmates at his all-white high school but also by blacks, who called him “ABC,” for “America’s Blackest Child,” on account of his dark skin. A black among Catholics and a Catholic among blacks, he sometimes seemed to fit in nowhere at all.
Mr. Thomas learned he could rely only on himself. His father left when he was a toddler. A few years later, his mother sent him to live with his grandparents, dumping his possessions in grocery bags and sending him out the front door, he wrote in his autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son.”
Ms. Sotomayor also grew up without a father; hers died of heart problems when she was 9. But her mother was a sustaining force, supporting the family by working as a nurse. In a recent speech, Judge Sotomayor recalled her mother and grandmother chatting and chopping ingredients for dinner. “I can’t describe to you the warmth of that moment for a child,” she said.
In New York, Puerto Ricans were pitied for poverty and blamed for crime. Popular images were dominated by the gangs of “West Side Story” and bumbling comics with broken English. According to friends, Ms. Sotomayor was not active in her high school’s small Latino club. Ethnicity was not something to be ashamed of, they said, but they did not really celebrate it either.
But on Princeton’s manicured campus, Ms. Sotomayor explored her roots in a way she never had on trips to Puerto Rico or in “Nuyorican” circles back home. In a Puerto Rican studies seminar, she absorbed the literature, economics, history and politics of the island, and by senior year, she was writing a thesis on its first democratically elected governor. In its dedication, she sounds newly enchanted with her heritage.
“To my family,” she wrote, “for you have given me my Puerto Rican-ness.”
“To the people of my island, for the rich history that is mine,” she continued.
Back to Their Roots
Ms. Sotomayor was not alone; for many minority students who arrived at elite colleges, the first thing they wanted to study was their own backgrounds. “What we did on campus was to use its resources to understand ourselves in a larger context,” said Eduardo Padro, a New York State Supreme Court justice who was raised in East Harlem and arrived at Yale in 1971, part of the first group of working-class Puerto Ricans there.
Ms. Sotomayor also became a passionate advocate for Hispanic recruitment. She took a work-study job in the admissions office, traveling to high schools and lobbying on behalf of her best prospects. As co-chairwoman of Accíon Puertorriqueña, she wrote a complaint accusing Princeton of discrimination, convinced the leaders of the Chicano Caucus to co-sign it and filed it with the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
But Ms. Sotomayor was no campus radical. She was more likely to mete out discipline than to be subjected to it: in an early turn at judgeship, she sat on a panel that ruled on student infractions.
William Bowen, Princeton’s president at the time, recalled in an interview that he used to call her for advice on Hispanic issues. After all, the university’s leadership wanted to make it more diverse, and Ms. Sotomayor’s activism helped them make their case. As a result of her efforts, other students said, Princeton hired its first Hispanic administrator and invited a Puerto Rican professor to teach.
While Ms. Sotomayor embraced her ethnicity in college and helped bring more Hispanics to campus, Mr. Thomas began to worry about the consequences of racial categorizations and grew skeptical of Holy Cross’s efforts to enroll blacks.
He flirted a bit with black nationalism, reading Malcolm X’s autobiography until the pages were worn. He drank in Ayn Rand’s ideas about individualism. He identified with the protagonists of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison novels, whose destinies were determined by racial stereotypes.
“I began to think of myself as a man without a country,” he wrote in his autobiography about his increasing alienation.
Some of his black classmates were losing their way, failing classes or falling into drug use, and he began to think of the college’s recruitment efforts as misguided. In his autobiography, he wrote of “these gifted young people being sacrificed on the altar of an abstract theory of social justice.”
Ms. Sotomayor and Mr. Thomas missed each other at Yale by only a few years, but they might as well have studied at entirely different institutions.
Given her standout record at Princeton, said James A. Thomas, a former dean of admissions, Ms. Sotomayor’s background had little role in her acceptance to the school. Again, she immersed herself in Puerto Rican issues, winning a spot on the law review with an article about Puerto Rico’s rights to resources in its seabed, leading the minority students’ association and urging the administration to hire a tenured Hispanic faculty member. (A quarter-century later, she is still pressing the school on the issue.)
Mr. Thomas, though, felt out of place from the moment he arrived and only became more disaffected. He had listed his race on his application and later felt haunted by the decision.
“I was among the elite, and I knew that no amount of striving could make me one of them,” he wrote. He ran into financial troubles and applied for scholarship money from a wealthy Yale family, a process he found humiliating. Friends recall that he insisted on dressing like a field hand, in overalls and a hat.
Mr. Thomas and Ms. Sotomayor did have one experience in common: law firm interviewers asked them if they really deserved their slots at Yale, implying that they might not have been accepted if they were white.
Ms. Sotomayor fought back so intensely — against a Washington firm, now merged with another — that she surprised even some of the school’s Hispanics. She filed a complaint with a faculty-student panel, which rejected the firm’s initial letter of apology and asked for a stronger one. Minority and women’s groups covered campus with fliers supporting her. Ms. Sotomayor eventually dropped her complaint, but the firm had already suffered a blow to its reputation.
Mr. Thomas was more private about the experience — even some friends do not recall it — but he took it hard. With rejection letters piling up, he feared he would not be able to support his wife and young son.
The problem, Mr. Thomas concluded, was affirmative action. Whites would not hire him, he concluded, because no one believed he had attended Yale on his own merits. He felt acute betrayal: his education was supposed to put him on equal footing, but he was not offered the jobs that his white classmates were getting. He saved the pile of rejection letters, he said in a speech years later.
“It was futile for me to suppose that I could escape the stigmatizing effects of racial preference,” he wrote in his autobiography.
From Yale, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Sotomayor took what seemed like entirely different paths: he as a Reagan official who helped dismantle affirmative action programs; she as a prosecutor and litigator.
But once in a while, their stories have converged. In their nominations to the Supreme Court, both were presented as barrier-breaking success stories. Both have seen those nominations become bogged down in debates about race and ethnicity.
And at times, each of them has viewed opposition to their confirmations in racial or ethnic terms. When Democrats opposed Justice Thomas’s nomination because of sexual harassment accusations, he called it a “high-tech lynching,” a triumph of stereotype.
Judge Sotomayor saw a hitch in her own confirmation for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a not entirely dissimilar light. Senate Republicans had held up her nomination for a year, and shortly afterward, she said they made assumptions about her views simply “because I was Hispanic and a woman.”
“I was dealt with on the basis of stereotypes,” she said.
David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting, and Kitty Bennett contributed research.