Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor knows what it’s like to overcome inequality. She spoke about societal barriers, Latino identity, and civic engagement in an interview with The Aspen Institute earlier this month.
Sotomayor spoke with the Latinos and Society Executive Director Abigail Golden-Vasquez in front of an audience at the event. The Huffington Post reports that Sotomayor repeatedly challenged the notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” explaining that the metaphor does not take systematic racial and economic inequality into account. Yet this popular myth runs deep in American culture, which promises that through hard work anyone can make it in America.
Even though the Supreme Court justice seems like living proof of the bootstraps ethos, she challenged the idea at The Aspen Institute.
“There’s a continuing tension in America between the image of the person who pulls themselves up by the bootstraps, and the person who believes that you need a lift to get up sometimes,” she said. “Those people who believe that everyone must pull themselves up — they don’t believe that people are entitled to help.”
She also told Golden-Vasquez that she relates personally to this experience and that marginalized communities often need additional support in order to overcome the barriers that are intrinsically in their lives.
“For those of us who understand that sometimes no matter how tall the heel on your boot is, the barrier is so high that you need a small lift to help you get over it — they will understand that the inequalities in society build that barrier so high,” Sotomayor said. “Unless you do something to knock it down or help that person up, they will never have a chance. I had those things. I had a unique mother who was able to understand the benefits of education and encouraged me to use education as my liftoff. But not everyone knows that.”
The Supreme Court justice has long been a proponent of programs like affirmative action that aim to boost opportunities for minority individuals who would not otherwise have access to a college education. For children raised in marginalized communities, there are several factors that are working against their chances of enrollment in higher education. For example, among at-risk and low-income children, 60% are more likely not to go to a college or university if they don’t get a quality preschool education. Unfortunately, luxuries like preschool are not easily afforded by many parents.
Sotomayor also spoke about her experience with affirmative action in an interview with CNN in the 1990s.
“I am a product of affirmative action,” she said. “I am the perfect affirmative action baby. I am Puerto Rican, born and raised in the South Bronx. My test scores were not comparable to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale. Not so far off so that I wasn’t able to succeed at those institutions.”
Despite these early setbacks, Sotomayor graduated with honors from Princeton University in 1976 and from Yale Law School three years later, where she also edited the prestigious Yale Law Journal. In 2009, Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama.
Sonia Sotomayor, 62, is just one year away from the average age of retirement in the United States. But because Supreme Court justices often serve for life (Ruth Bader Ginsburg is pushing 84), it’s likely she’s just beginning her time on the Supreme Court, as well as her time inspiring others with her story.
Image Source: Official White House photo by Pete Souza