The Blog

Sonia Sotomayor: "Affirmative Action Baby"

11:32 AM, Jun 11, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

From the moment Sonia Sotomayor was nominated, Democrats have pointed to her academic pedigree as evidence that she is highly qualified for the job. Some conservatives doubted whether those credentials were, on their own, evidence of anything other than the success of liberal social policies like affirmative action. This blog stated that Sotomayor, because of her ethnic background, had been the beneficiary of preferential treatment from both Princeton and Yale. Such a statement would seem beyond dispute -- affirmative action policies were in place at both schools and designed specifically to provide someone with Sotomayor's background an easier path to admission. Yet the left was outraged that anyone would suggest Sotomayor had benefited from affirmative action.

Now the New York Times reports that among the documents Sotomayor submitted to the Senate in advance of her hearings is a videotape in which she concedes the point entirely and without any qualification:

The clips include lengthy remarks about her experiences as an "affirmative action baby" whose lower test scores were overlooked by admissions committees at Princeton University and Yale Law School because, she said, she is Hispanic and had grown up in poor circumstances.

"If we had gone through the traditional numbers route of those institutions, it would have been highly questionable if I would have been accepted," she said on a panel of three female judges from New York who were discussing women in the judiciary. The video is dated "early 1990s" in Senate records.

Her comments came in the context of explaining why she thought it was "critical that we promote diversity" by appointing more women and members of minorities as judges, and they provoked objections among other panelists who pointed out that she had graduated summa cum laude from Princeton and been an editor on Yale's law journal.

But Judge Sotomayor insisted that her test scores were sub-par - "though not so far off the mark that I wasn't able to succeed at those institutions." Her scores have not been made public.

"With my academic achievement in high school, I was accepted rather readily at Princeton and equally as fast at Yale, but my test scores were not comparable to that of my classmates," she said. "And that's been shown by statistics, there are reasons for that. There are cultural biases built into testing, and that was one of the motivations for the concept of affirmative action to try to balance out those effects."

No one is seriously arguing that Sotomayor was the most impressive intellect of those rumored to have made Obama's short list. The fact that she graduated summa cum laude argues in favor of her competence, as does her long career on the bench, but by Sotomayor's own account she would not be where she is had she had not benefited from race-based preferences. As a matter of official policy, these schools lowered the bar for Sotomayor, so why do her supporters -- who tend also to be supporters of affirmative action -- not celebrate her nomination, and her career, as proof that affirmative action works? The former president of Princeton University specifically denied that Sotomayor had needed the help of affirmative action in order to gain admission to Princeton. Conservatives who suggested otherwise were called racists or worse. There's only one possible explanation for this -- liberals are embarrassed that their nominee wasn't smart enough to get here on her own.