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Understanding Sonia Sotomayor: Princeton University holds the key

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  • Ed Pearl
    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0509/23074.html Princeton University holds the key to understanding Sonia Sotomayor By BEN SMITH Politico: May 29, 2009
    Message 1 of 1 , May 30, 2009
    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0509/23074.html

    Princeton University holds the key to understanding Sonia Sotomayor

    By BEN SMITH
    Politico: May 29, 2009

    Princeton University, Michelle Obama wrote in her 1985 college thesis, was
    "infamous for being racially the most conservative of the Ivy League
    universities."


    But for the second time in the Obama era, the stodgy Ivy League academy has
    emerged as a key to understanding the identity of a central player on the
    national stage - this time, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who graduated from
    Princeton nine years earlier.


    The first lady weathered intense storms during the campaign, many of which
    focused, directly or indirectly, on her race, before settling into a
    traditional and popular public role in the White House. The Sotomayor
    nomination is dragging both the judge and the Obama White House - largely
    against their will - back onto that charged terrain.


    Foes of Michelle Obama (Princeton '85) sought to tie her most pointed recent
    comment on race - that her husband's campaign made her proud of her country
    "for the first time" - back to that Princeton thesis, where Obama's sense of
    aching racial exclusion came through powerfully.


    For Sotomayor (Princeton '76), the words in question came from 2001, a
    single sentence on the final page of a speech that has emerged as an issue
    in her nomination: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness
    of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than
    a white male who hasn't lived that life," she said.

    Friends, classmates, and Judge Sotomayor herself say that sense of racial
    identity as a central political category - and of her own place on the stage
    as not just a wise judge, but as a wise Latina - were formed in the unlikely
    crucible of Princeton.


    It's where she was the moderate leader of a Puerto Rican activist group, and
    where she graduated with the school's highest honors based in part on her
    activism. One friend from the time, Joe Schubert, dismissed the notion of
    Sotomayor as a student radical as "laughable."


    "She had too much to lose to be the type of person who was out bombing ROTC
    buildings - and that happened at Princeton," Schubert said. " 'Sonia' and
    'radical' don't fit in the same sentence."


    Sotomayor was among the first women at Princeton, and the first
    beneficiaries of a minority recruiting drive that would take in many of the
    other Ivy Leaguers now at top levels of the American government, and her
    story has riveted other members of that cadre.


    "I was struck by how similar her story is to the president's and first
    lady's," said Crystal Nix Hines, a classmate of Michelle Obama who was the
    first black editor of Princeton's student newspaper, and is now a lawyer and
    writer in Los Angeles. "Like Judge Sotomayor, Michelle Obama had to find her
    comfort zone in a community of extraordinarily intelligent and privileged
    individuals at Princeton, most of whom had little knowledge of the
    circumstances from which she had risen."


    Though Obama and Sotomayor never crossed paths at Princeton, elements of
    their experience are almost eerily parallel.


    The school was "an alien land for me," Sotomayor recalled two decades later,
    describing how Puerto Rican activism and the hub of minority politics, The
    Third World Center, "provided me with an anchor I needed to ground myself in
    that new and different world."


    Later, Michelle Obama also came to the Third World Center, eventually
    serving on its governing board. In her thesis, the future first lady
    described a similar alienation.

    "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness'
    than ever before," the future Mrs. Obama wrote in her thesis introduction.
    "I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong."


    Both also incorporated their identities deeply into their studies: Obama
    wrote her thesis on the relationship of black Princeton graduates to the
    African-American community, while Sotomayor wrote hers on the Puerto Rican
    struggle for self-determination.


    To understand Sotomayor's views on identity and politics, even the judge
    herself has said it's necessary to return to the Central New Jersey campus,
    when Sotomayor, 18 and the freshly minted valedictorian of Cardinal Spellman
    in the Bronx arrived at the Princeton Inn, a dorm on the edge of the
    sprawling, gothic campus.

    To the outside view, she was instantly impressive. "I remember her as a
    bright, high-energy, confident young lady," said Andrew Oser, a student
    athlete who was in her dorm freshman year.


    But Sotomayor was, in fact, nearly drowning. Her writing skills, she'd
    discovered, weren't as polished as those of her prep school classmates. And
    few could identify with the daughter of a single mother from one of the
    poorest counties in America.


    The center of Princeton social life, meanwhile, were its exclusive eating
    clubs, which were largely white. Some even barred women at the time.


    "Not many students of color belonged to eating clubs," recalled Sergio
    Sotolongo, who was a year behind Sotomayor at Spellman and Princeton. "There
    were other things that we as a group would turn to in order to fill that
    void."


    Politics were the natural place to turn.


    "This was the middle of the anti-war days. Student activism was rampant
    across the campus," recalled Schubert, a Mexican-American two grades older
    who got to know Sotomayor well while dating her best friend.


    Sotomayor was initially slow to join the Puerto Rican campus group, Accion
    Puertorriqueno, classmates recalled; when she did join, she took it over,
    and led the filing of a complaint in 1974 with the federal Department of
    Health, Education, and Welfare alleging a "lack of commitment" to a
    federally mandated minority recruitment goals. She's pictured in that April
    22's Princetonian looking soberly at the camera from behind big glasses,
    beside her counterpart from the Chicano Organization of Princeton.


    But while the lawsuit may look in retrospect like a confrontational tactic,
    it was seen at the time as the path of accommodation, recalled Schubert and
    another Hispanic student leader, who asked that his name not be used because
    of his current position.


    "Sonia was a voice of reason," recalled the other student leader. "There
    were Hispanics who felt that we shouldn't be in dialogue with the
    administration - we ought to be telling them to take a hike."


    But the HEW complaint was "a very effective tactic ," said Schubert. "It got
    their attention, and they began to intensify their recruitment efforts."


    Sotomayor would go on to win Princeton's highest student honor for her
    academic performance - she graduated summa cum laude - and her activism. The
    explicit attachment to what candidate Barack Obama, among others, would
    derisively refer to as "identity politics," never left her.

    Sotomayor considered her own identity in a 1998 speech on her induction to
    the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which was later reprinted in a Hispanic
    education magazine.


    "In this time of great debate, we must remember that it is not politics or
    its struggles that creates a Latino or Latina identity. I became a Latina by
    the way I love and the way I live my life," she said. "Princeton and my life
    experiences since have taught me, however, that having a Latina identity
    anchors me in this otherwise alien world."

    Michelle Obama arrived at Princeton five years after Sotomayor left it, to
    find a school that may have been less alien. There were more minority
    students. A lawsuit had forced open the doors of eating clubs to women. And
    her older brother, Craig, was a big man on campus.


    "Talk about the hook-up - your brother is not only there already, but he is
    the star basketball player," said a college roommate, Angela Acree. "That
    gives you your total entrée, so I don't know whether Michelle would have the
    same feeling as another young lady arriving on campus."


    But the future first lady evidently did have the same intense sense of
    difference that characterized the experience of many at Princeton.


    "Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at
    Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a
    student second," she wrote in her thesis.


    She too devoted herself to work at the Third World Center, taking a seat on
    the Center's board and running an after-school program for local children.


    For a spell during the Democratic primaries in 2008, Michelle Obama appeared
    in danger of being cast as a radical, someone whose patriotism was in doubt
    after she said that she'd first come to "really love" America during the
    campaign.


    Michelle Obama retreated to a more traditional spousal role, but she also
    appeared to benefit from the broad judgment that her politics weren't all
    that radical, her exploration of her identity wasn't that hard for most
    Americans to grasp.


    Sotomayor appears headed for the same judgment: Despite the denunciations of
    Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who have called her a "racist," even other
    conservative Republicans have decided that this isn't a battle they can win.
    Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial
    Committee, Thursday denounced Gingrich's and Limbaugh's attacks on
    Sotomayor.


    Meanwhile, Princeton is wrestling with the mixed blessing of being defined
    by two alumnae who were shaped largely in reaction against the school.


    "We do suffer from old stereotypes that are no longer true today. Were they
    ever true? There's a reason that stereotypes are born, but Princeton has
    come a long, long way in a short period of time," said Lauren
    Robinson-Brown, a black classmate of Michelle Obama's who is now assistant
    vice president for communications at Princeton.


    "Not many of us would say it was a wonderful place back then - but did we
    have wonderful experiences," she said.


    The nominee's sense of racial identity as a central political category
    were formed in the unlikely crucible of Princeton. Photo: POLITICO Staff
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