Dreams from my motherPresident Obama clearly had two models in mind when he chose Sonia Sotomayor as his first Supreme Court nominee: himself and his wife, Michelle.
By: Steve and Cokie Roberts, The Jamestown Sun
President Obama clearly had two models in mind when he chose Sonia Sotomayor as his first Supreme Court nominee: himself and his wife, Michelle.
The Obamas are the first family of color to live in the White House; Sotomayor would be the first woman of color (and the first Hispanic of either gender) to sit on the High Court. All three rose from humble beginnings, overcame early obstacles, excelled at top schools, and succeeded in a world dominated by whites. And all three give credit to their mothers.
Of course, politics is part of Sotomayor’s selection. The president is practically daring Republicans to oppose her nomination and poison their prospects with the country’s fastest-growing voter group. Hispanics made up 9 percent of the electorate last fall, and 67 percent of them backed Obama. But among those under 30 years old, 76 percent voted Democratic.
When Sotomayor was confirmed to the federal-appeals bench 11 years ago, 29 Republicans voted against her. Go ahead, Obama is saying, with his best Dirty Barry smirk. Do it again. Make my day. (And while you’re at it, alienate women voters who backed Obama 56 percent to 43 percent.)
But this movie doesn’t star Clint Eastwood. It would feature America Ferrera (the daughter of Honduran immigrants) or Jennifer Lopez (like Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican from the South Bronx), and it would be called “Guess Who’s Coming to Court.”
Obama has always understood the power of narrative to convey his message and connect with voters. That’s why his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” remains a best seller.
As he likes to say, a black man with a funny name had to find ways to tell voters, “I’m just like you.” He did that through stories about his family: the father who left him, the grandparents who raised him and the mother who depended on food stamps while struggling to earn her college degree. Michelle’s father hobbled on two canes to get to his job as a pump operator for the Chicago water department.
Even in the White House, the Obamas continue to relate to ordinary Americans through stories: from the new puppy and the swing set to burger runs with Joe Biden and “date nights” with each other while Michelle’s mother baby-sits the kids.
So it’s easy to see why the president identified with Sotomayor’s journey: a factory-worker father who died when she was 9, a mother who held two jobs to pay the rent in a public-housing project and send her daughter to Catholic school, a scholarship to Princeton, where she matriculated a few years ahead of Michelle Obama. Sotomayor’s autobiography could be called “Dreams from My Mother.”
But Obama’s choice goes beyond sentiment. Sotomayor clearly shares his belief that a president — or a justice — should know the streets of South Chicago or the South Bronx, not just a university in Cambridge or a law firm in Manhattan. Diversity is not about quotas or correctness; it’s about government truly reflecting the American people.
In her brief talk at the White House, Sotomayor paid tribute to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. But all of them, like 106 of the nation’s 110 Supreme Court justices, were white males. None looked like her, or the president, and in a revealing talk in 2001, she eagerly embraced her ethnic and gender identity.
“I accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions,” she said. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
It’s too simple to say, as her critics already are, that “wise” always means “liberal.” Wise means believing that the law protects the weak as well as the powerful, the minority as well as the majority, the people who could not even vote or own property (or were owned as property) when the Constitution was written.
There’s another connection between the Obamas and the nominee: the role models they provide for young people of color. Sotomayor dreamed of becoming a lawyer after reading Nancy Drew mysteries and watching “Perry Mason” on television. But they, too, were both white.
Barring some unexpected revelation, Sonia Sotomayor will be the next justice. Think of the kids in the Bronx, or Bakersfield, or Baltimore, who will be inspired to reach higher and dream bigger because people who sit on the Supreme Court and live in the White House look like them and understand their lives.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
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