Home  »  General  »  Sotomayor Compared To Michelle And Barack In Practicing Racial Politics

May 29, 2009 6 Comments ›› Erik Wong


POLITICO: 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.”

The face of a (former) student radical.

“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.

“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.”

The face of another (former) student radical.

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.