So­tomayor, out of con­text

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Thomas Sow­ell

As part of the bi­o­graph­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Judge So­nia So­tomayor’s past, the New York Times of May 31st had a fea­ture story on the var­i­ous New York hous­ing projects in which she and other well­known peo­ple grew up — in­clud­ing Whoopi Gold­berg, Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar, Th­elo­nious Monk and Mike Tyson.

There was a map of New York City and dots pin-point­ing the lo­ca­tion of the project in which each celebrity grew up. As an old New Yorker, I was struck by the fact that not one of the 20 celebri­ties shown grew up in a hous­ing project in Har­lem!

The hous­ing projects in which they grew up were dif­fer­ent in an­other and more fun­da­men­tal way. As the New York Times put it: “Th­ese were not the projects of idle, stinky el­e­va­tors, of gang-con­trolled stair­wells where drug deals go down.” In other words, th­ese were pub­lic hous­ing projects of an ear­lier era, when such places were very dif­fer­ent from what we as­so­ciate with the words “hous­ing project” to­day.

Just the ref­er­ence to un­locked doors on the apart­ments there, so that chil­dren could more eas­ily visit play­mates in nearby apart­ments on Satur­day morn­ings to watch tele­vi­sion, cre­ates an im­age that must seem like some­thing out of an­other world to those fa­mil­iar only with the hous­ing projects of to­day.

There were stan­dards for get­ting into the projects of those days and, if you didn’t live up to those stan­dards, they put you out. Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar was quoted as say­ing, “When kids played on the grass, their par­ent would get a warn­ing.” That seems al­most quaint when you think of what has gone on in the hous­ing projects of a later era.

Since there has been so much talk of putting some of So­nia So­tomayor’s in­flam­ma­tory words “in con­text,” per­haps we should put her per­sonal life in con­text, if the me­dia in­sist on mak­ing her per­sonal life a fac­tor in her nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court. While she grew up in a pub­lic hous­ing project, the words “hous­ing project” in that era did not mean any­thing like the hous­ing projects of to­day.

A rel­a­tive of mine lived in one of the hous­ing projects back then — and we were proud of him, as well as glad for him, be­cause such places were for upright cit­i­zens in those days — work­ing class peo­ple with steady jobs and good be­hav­ior. Clever in­tel­lec­tu­als had not yet taught us to be “non­judg­men­tal” about mis­be­hav­ior or to make ex­cuses for van­dal­ism and crime.

While So­nia So­tomayor was not born with a sil­ver spoon in her mouth, let’s not make her some­one who rose from such depths as those con­jured up by the words “hous­ing projects” to­day. It is bad enough that bi­o­graph­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions carry such weight in con­sid­er­a­tions of nom­i­nees for the Supreme Court. But, if bi­og­ra­phy must be elab­o­rated, let it at least be done “in con­text.”

It has al­ways made me a lit­tle un­easy when gen­er­ous well­wish­ers have dis­cussed my ed­u­ca­tional back­ground as if it was some­thing al­most mirac­u­lous that I came out of the schools in Har­lem and went on to Ivy League in­sti­tu­tions. But any num­ber of other peo­ple did ex­actly the same thing.

The Har­lem schools of that era were no more like the Har­lem schools of to­day than the hous­ing projects of that era were like to­day’s hous­ing proj- ects. They had classes grouped by abil­ity and, if you were se­ri­ous about get­ting a good ed­u­ca­tion, you could get into one of the classes for kids who were se­ri­ous and re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion that would pre­pare you to go on in life.

There is a lot to pon­der about why both the schools and the hous­ing projects de­gen­er­ated so much af­ter the bright ideas of the 1960s in­tel­li­gentsia spread through­out so­ci­ety, leav­ing so­cial havoc in their wake.

Too many peo­ple who rose to where they are to­day be­cause of a foun­da­tion of tra­di­tional val­ues have be­come en­thralled by the very dif­fer­ent ideas preva­lent in the elite in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles to which they moved. Judge So­tomayor seems to be one of those, with her ideas about race and the pol­i­cy­mak­ing role of judges.

It is bad enough that so many of those “ad­vanced” ideas have un­der­mined for oth­ers the foun­da­tion that So­nia So­tomayor had as she grew up, de­spite be­ing raised in a home with a mod­est in­come. There is no need to let her use the Supreme Court to de­stroy more of those tra­di­tional Amer­i­can val­ues.

Thomas Sow­ell is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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