Sonia Sotomayor and “the day-to-day reality of affirmative action”

My Beloved WorldThe Supreme Court’s decision concerning the use of race in college and university admissions coincided with my reading of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2013). Her admission to Princeton University in 1972 took place during a time when race negatively affected guidance given students by school counselors and positively influenced college and university admission officers.

Sotomayor grew up in a Puerto Rican community in the Bronx. Her extended family was poor, tightly inter-connected, Catholic, and marginally integrated into mainstream American culture.

Along with her younger brother, Sotomayor attended Blessed Sacrament elementary school and Cardinal Spellman high school. She describes herself as an energetic and determined student and participant in school activities. She thought things through and carefully calculated courses of action that would help her achieve her goals both in the classroom and in other school activities. Her relationship toward teachers combined deference and independence.

During her senior year, she was contacted by a student a year ahead of her who was in his first year at Princeton. His advice to her as she was beginning her own search for a college was “Try for the Ivy League…He explained that this was the finest college education available and that it would open every door” (p. 117).

The next day the guidance counselor at Spellman asked if she had thought about Fordham, and when Sotomayor answered no the counselor suggested several other Catholic colleges.

“I told her that I wasn’t really interested in parochial colleges; I wanted to apply to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford…She looked at me. ‘Okay.’ And that was the extent of her guidance.”

On her own, this high school senior developed her applications and sent them to the schools on her list. In November, a postcard from Princeton arrived in the mail with an X in a square indicating that admission was likely. Unsure of what this meant, she asked her guidance counselor about it.

“Behind the look of utter surprise that completely rearranged her features, the oracle pronounced: ‘Likely means just what it says. There’s a good chance that you’ll get in.’ I thought to myself, really?”

A couple of days later, the school nurse accosted her about the notice from Princeton, with this question: “Well, can you explain to me how you got a ‘likely’ and the two top-ranking girls in the school only got a ‘possible’?”

“I just looked at her. What did she mean by that? Not to mention that accusatory tone? My perplexed discomfort under her baleful gaze was clearly not enough; shame was the response she seemed to want from me” (p. 119).

The answer that came to her later was to cite her accomplishments on the school’s forensic team and her working part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. “I may be ranked below them, but I’m still in the top ten, and I do more than the others.”

“But even that undelivered comeback was far from complete. Her question would hang over me not just that day but for the next several years, while I lived the day-to-day reality of affirmative action. At the time I was applying to college, I had little understanding of how the admissions process functioned generally, let alone how affirmative action might affect it in particular. Barely a decade had passed since affirmative action had been implemented in government contracting. It was still experimental in Ivy League college admissions, and few of the first minority students to benefit from it had even managed to graduate yet” (119).

It took time for admissions practices to change and for new modes to arise that were fair to all concerned. Some youth from the dominant society experienced reverse discrimination. For example, sixteen years after Sotomayor’s admission to Princeton, one of my neighbors told me, her son was a high school student attending an admissions coaching session in Seattle. “Unless you are Black, Asian, or Latino, the representative from Stanford told them, there’s no point in your applying to Stanford.”

My own children were applying to colleges at the same time as Sotomayor. As far as I know, they and their classmates from a predominately black public high school in Indianapolis were able to choose colleges on the basis of interest and ability. I am grateful that affirmative action opened the doors for some of these students whom the system would have excluded had it not been for affirmative action.

Many things have changed in American life during the past forty years. Every level of the nation’s educational system has been affected. As in the past, race and family culture continue to be major factors in how students are treated and how they think of themselves. We always have to keep these factors in front of us.

The challenges to education, however, are increasing in their scope and intractability. New levels of scrutiny, and new policies and laws, are now needed if the benefits of education are to be available to all students who prepare themselves and work hard at the tasks of learning.

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