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Sonia Sotomayor: Up From the Projects

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

With the nose of a trained columnist, I detect the whiff of elitism-cum-racism emanating from the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The whiff does not come -- Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich notwithstanding -- from Sotomayor's own statements; nor does it come from her controversial decision upholding race-based affirmative action. It comes, instead, from the general expression of wow about her background. Imagine, someone from the projects is a success!

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"Nobody expects you to be chosen someday for the Supreme Court when your father was a welder with a third-grade education," wrote Richard Lacayo in Time magazine. He is right -- the expectations are all otherwise. You can see them on display in many of the reports about Sotomayor's background. She was raised in public housing projects. She grew up in the Bronx, which the average person must think of as a particularly nasty part of Mumbai, and she is, finally and incriminatingly, Puerto Rican. This is all, apparently, very hard to imagine.

It once was not. It was generally recognized that being poor was not necessarily destiny. This was the gift of liberalism, especially New York City-style liberalism. The city would provide housing -- about 400,000 now live in public housing -- and it would provide good schools, and later, with good grades and the proper attitude, it would offer an excellent higher education: City College, Brooklyn College, Queens College and my own beloved Hunter College. The vast poor were the city's oil fields. Any kid could be a gusher.

The New York Times recently supplied us with the names of some public housing alumni. They included Jay-Z, the rapper, and Wesley Snipes, the actor, and Mike Tyson, the brute. They also include Gary Ackerman, the wittiest person in Congress (sorry, Barney), and Lloyd C. Blankfein, who runs Goldman Sachs. Howard Schultz, who conceived the current Starbucks, came out of the projects and so did Ursula M. Burns, who is black and a woman and now is the CEO of Xerox. Copy that, please.

The projects also produced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the former Caryn Elaine Johnson, who performs as Whoopi Goldberg. She lived in the Chelsea Houses. The Times mentioned them both. It did not mention, though, Millie Torado, who grew up in the Redfern projects and is an old, old family friend, or Joel Klein, the New York City school chancellor, who lived in Woodside Houses (Queens) and was told when he entered Columbia University that not all that much was expected of him. He disappointed by going on to Harvard Law School. No mention was made either of Ken Auletta, the media writer for the New Yorker. Obviously, there are far too many to list.

Inevitably, what these people have in common are one or two dedicated parents or guardians who knew that housing, public or otherwise, is where your body spends its time. Your mind can live anywhere. In the case of the young Sotomayor, it was between the covers of Nancy Drew novels and watching Perry Mason on television. She imagined she could become a lawyer. Now, maybe, a girl like her can imagine becoming a Supreme Court justice.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a true American aristocrat, rich and landed, yet the poor never had a greater champion. The man who preceded him in the presidency, Herbert Hoover, was raised in poverty yet forgot who he had been. He feared government welfare programs would sap the poor of their industry. It's always dangerous to generalize. It is impossible to predict.

I do not agree with Sotomayor on the New Haven affirmative-action case and have written a column saying why. But if it can be said she sided with minorities over white men, recognize that two of the New Haven firefighters unjustly affected on the basis of race are Hispanic. But I agree with what Sotomayor meant when she said in her famous 2001 speech, "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." Yes, in some cases. That is the virtue of diversity. You're instructed by your own life.

Sotomayor's life instructs her that the projects are chock-full of people like her. They are propelled by the greenest of fuels, their indomitable parents, and they are nourished by wonderful teachers, determined principals -- and the opportunities provided by a generous government. Sotomayor's coming out of the projects is no miracle. The tragedy is that we think it is.

cohenr@washpost.com


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