Embracing the race issue: Obama’s Sotomayor pick an inspiring Affirmative Action success story

American Filipinos, like most people of color, know the life of Sonia Sotomayor, the woman picked by President Obama to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. If empathy was one of the criteria, Sotomayor has no problem when it comes to Filipinos. Her story is practically our story.

With the Philippines connected to Puerto Rico as pawns in the Spanish American War, our heritage alone makes us natural allies. Sotomayor’s parents came from Puerto Rico to America looking for opportunity. They arrived in New York and grew up in public housing in the Bronx.

If you’re from San Francisco like I am,  read that as Geneva Towers, Hunter’s Point, or Potrero Hill. Like I said, we share a life, a pattern, and are fortunate to have had  opportunities to break it. As a young girl in Catholic school, Sotomayor was identified as a promising student. For many children of color, this would begin in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Elite secondary schools and universities began to plant seeds throughout the country, hoping to grow a new generational pool of talent for the nation.

As an American Filipino, I was one of those chosen. So were young Latinas like Sotomayor, who chose Princeton, then Yale Law School. She was on the fast track and succeeded every step.

Now, nearly two generations later, the real harvest occurs. No one can say there are few qualified minorities after such a lengthy period of social nurturing.

The degrees of success vary, of course. But the large middle- and upper-middle class in America is a direct result of those years of opportunity. As a testament to that, this week President Obama could choose a Latina woman who has been nominated in the past by both Democratic and Republican presidents for successively higher federal court positions. That alone speaks volumes about the success of a much-maligned social strategy to equality: affirmative action. It works.

When administered properly by identifying qualified and talented candidates, affirmative action remains a strategy that can help bring true diversity to America at every level of society.

At the base of affirmative action is merit. It’s allowing people who wouldn’t have a chance an opportunity to compete. That’s not racist compared to the all-white institutions and envirnonments affirmative action was intended to fix.

Of course, these days, you’ll never hear affirmative action mentioned. It’s not even euphemized like calling terror “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  If the phrase “affirmative action” was said at the Obama press conference this week, I didn’t hear it. It’s political death.

Instead you heard the president talk about Sotomayor’s American Dream. You heard about how she grew up in the projects and got to Yale Law School.

It was basically my admission essay to Harvard in 1972.  It’s a good story. It works. At the press conference, you also heard about baseball, and how as a federal judge in New York, it was Sotomayor’s decision in 1995 that sided with the players and ended the baseball strike. What a gal! American Dream and Baseball. Sounds like the first Latina to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court!

The Obama administration has chosen to sell the judge in this feel-good fashion to avoid all the hot buttons of race.

But there’s nothing wrong with confronting the hot-buttons with Sotomayor.

There’s a reason she was nominated up the judge chain by both G.H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  She’s good and qualified, emphasis on that second point.

And she’s a woman and a Latina. The administration is finally showing that race really matters.

Straddling Colorblind

For all of President Obama’s underplaying of race in his political demeanor to the point of colorblindness, his Supreme Court pick says it all. To his credit, he still values the pigment and the numbers. In this era of diversity, we need to see the reflection of America in everything we hold dear. And that means making sure people of color show up.  Race politics is alive and well.

Naysayers may cry out that that leads to quotas, which are, of course, illegal. But no one is talking about quotas.  On the contrary, we should all hope that this appointment leads to more harvesting of the seeds of affirmative action, a proven remedy to racial injustice.

Sotomayor, self-described as an ordinary person blessed with extraordinary opportunities, is a living example of affirmative action done right. She shows what happens when gifted and talented people of promise from under-served communities  are given a chance. They excel. They succeed.

Sotomayor’s “American Dream” tale is attractive. But people shouldn’t  forget that her life is the blueprint model of how affirmative action–when it is administered correctly–is supposed to work. A little girl from the projects can be part of the highest court of the land. Sotomayor’s nomination should be a boost to all people of color that the dream of opportunity is still alive.

It’s a definite sign that President Obama, who has taken the elevator up, has not forgotten to send it back down.

I haven’t seen such a clear sign of hope for America in a long, long time.