In This Powerful Talk, Sonia Sotomayor Dismantles America’s Bootstrapping Narrative

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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who’s guided by the sin-pelos-en-la-lengua philosophy, is known for her frank commentary about how the system is stacked against certain demographics. A few years ago, for example, Sotomayor demonstrated that with one case. The state of Georgia dismissed a potential black juror – whose cousin had a drug arrest – because they believed she couldn’t remain unbiased. Sotomayor explained that she herself had cousins who had been arrested, but that she didn’t necessarily have a relationship with them – something that no one bothered to ask the potential juror. As the first and only Latina on the Supreme Court, she’s often able to bring a unique perspective that differentiates her from the mostly-white, mostly-male court.

At a recent discussion at the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program with Abigail Golden-Vazquez, the executive director of Latinos and Society, Sotomayor explained how societal inequalities adversely affect people who, like her, come from humble backgrounds and spoke about how we can become more civically engaged. In the about hour-long discussion, Sotomayor dropped pearls of wisdom that once again solidify why she’s our favorite Supreme Court Justice. Here are some highlights from the discussion:

[H/T Huffington Post]


On why some Latinos lag in civic participation:

“Let’s be honest. If you’re working 14 hours a day at your job, it is hard to make time for civic participation. And for many Latinos, that’s the quality of their life. We have to engage with that reality. It’s very hard to motivate people who barely have time to sit and think about involving themselves in other people’s problems. That’s why I think teaching civic involvement as a bettering not of the world, but of your community, becomes more powerful and easier to sell. That, I think, every Latino does intuitively. That’s why we have such extended families.”


On how we can reach parity in society:

“We are never going to reach equality in America until we achieve equality in education. That’s why we’re unequal in this society, and it’s what we need to change if we want all people equal – not just under law – but in participation in society.

“None of us can afford to be bystanders in life. We create our community, and we create it by being active participants in our community. Since I joined the board of iCivics, I’ve been an active participant in three new initiatives: moving into high schools, creating models for how teachers can create programs to do civic problems, and making things accessible to ESL students.”


On why not everyone can just pull themselves up by the bootstraps:


“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. Those people who believe that everyone must pull themselves up – they don’t believe that people are entitled to help. 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. Unless you do something to knock it down or help that person up, they will never have a chance.”


On how she continues to grow:

“There are two questions I ask myself every day. One is: what have I learned today? I try not to limit it to the law. That would be cheating. It’s usually something I’ve read or listened to on the news. It could be anything. But it has to be something with a rich meaning. The richer I am, the more I can give.”


On how to move past disillusion:

“Anytime you are disillusioned by any election or anything that happened, you have to ask who’s responsible. Whatever happens is because we don’t take control and ensure that our voices are heard. Look at how close the last election was. Every time I look at people I want to ask, did you vote? And any Latino who complains to me – that’s the first question I ask. My point is: we don’t have a right to despair … What’s left once you walk away? All the bad things you hate? You’ve done absolutely nothing to change them. At the end of my life I want to be able to look at myself and say, I tried.

“If you can’t say that, you can’t claim a meaningful life. And that’s what spurs me on in everything I do. If we give up hope, we have nothing left to live for. There’s too much at stake for the people I love. For the community that is such an integral part of who I am. For the children who want to grow up and have the world I want and the future I imagine for them. My life is worth my effort, and so is yours.”


On how we can stand in solidarity with the undocumented community:

“Look there are so many different things that can be done. It’s hard to pick on one thing and say there’s a magic bullet solution. There is no magic bullet solution. This a problem that has to be addressed on so many levels. We need more lawyers at the borders. We need more lawyers helping immigrants who are coming here and are here to help regularize their status and to try to give them advice about what their alternatives are in terms of coming into the country. There are all sorts of different reasons for why people can stay here, and you have to learn about what those reasons are. But we need more people involved in ensuring that entering immigrants are given proper legal advice but are also given proper aid and helping them figure out how to regularize their status here.

Secondly, we need people involved in this continuing conversation. I’m not taking a side on the issue, not at all… But we have to have people really talking about the value of immigrants to our society. There’s a lot of talk about how immigrants hurt our society, but how much are you hearing on the other side of that debate? Much less. The debate has to be equalized in some meaningful way.”

Watch the video here.