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The Surprising Details About Sonia Sotomayor's College Past That You Won't Find in Her New Book


​Her new book debuted last week, touching off a national debate about racial preferences. Here are some of surprising details from her Princeton years that she left out.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 28: US Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks during a Commonwealth Club event at Herbst Theatre on January 28, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Sotomayor spoke in conversation with Stanford law school dean Mary Elizabeth Magill at the Commonwealth Club as she promotes her new book 'My Beloved World'. Credit: Getty Images

Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Credit: Getty Images 

Sotomayor’s time at Princeton takes up much of the book, but her account of her alma mater left a lot out, especially her involvement in left-wing politics and an explicitly anti-white club. In fact, despite her self-description as “more as a mediator than a crusader” on racial and political issues, the archives of Princeton show that it was just the opposite. According to The Daily Princetonian, Sotomayor even “helped shape” Princeton’s affirmative action practices and used her position as a student judge to advance a left-wing agenda.

Accion Puertorriquena

As a sophomore, Sotomayor, then co-chairman of the Puerto Rican student group Accion Puertorriquena, filed an April 1974 complaint with the New York office of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) demanding that Princeton do a better job recruiting Latino administrators, faculty, and students. She delivered not one, but two letters to the president of the university calling for explicit quotas and timetables for Latino students, faculty, and administrators—and got results.

“Over the next few years, the University established new hiring and recruitment practices that gradually changed the ethnic makeup of the faculty as well as the student body,” wrote The Daily Princetonian in 2009.

Sotomayor demanded more Latinos on campus. She condemned Princeton’s administrators for showing “a total absence of regard, concern, and respect” for Latinos and accused them of organizing “an attempt—a successful attempt so far—to relegate an important cultural sector of the population to oblivion” in a letter to the editor in May 10, 1974.

Source: Princeton Archives

Sotomayor saw an “institutional pattern of discrimination” at Princeton. Later in a 1996 speech, she described the complaint as Princeton’s “affirmative action failures” and the ensuing pro-racial preferences as results. “A short time later, Princeton hired its first Hispanic assistant dean of students.”

Such pressure tactics were controversial on campus. The Daily Princetonian strongly editorialized against Sotomayor’s demand for quotas and timetables. “Affirmative Action should not mean positive efforts to reverse a historical pattern of minority under-representation at the expense of traditional standards of excellence,” it wrote on Feb. 17, 1975. [Emphasis in original]. The editorial page doubted how the school could guarantee proper racial proportions. “In many cases such data simply do not exist,” it noted and even called the HEW’s demand for more minorities on campus as “the arrogance of ignorance.”

Third World Center

While Sotomayor’s book mentioned her involvement with the Third World Center (TWC), she left out that the group’s politics were laced with anti-American and anti-white rhetoric. Its constitution and founding documents made this clear, as does a 1976 document from the TWC. “Oppression breeds resistance,” the students wrote in protest of the decision by Princeton University to reduce the TWC’s funding. “The history of the peoples of the Third World, who have suffered from U.S. Imperialism, and of the oppressed nationalities within the United States—Afro-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Asians, and Native Americans, has been a history of oppression and resistance.”

Source: Princeton Archives

The TWC’s anti-white position was demonstrated in November 1984, when the group’s board demanded that non-white students should have the right to bar whites from their meetings on campus. They also demanded minorities-only meetings with the deans. (John Hurley, “Black students, university debate closed meeting policy,” The Daily Princetonian, November 29, 1984).

This was an outgrowth of the purpose of TWC, which was to teach minority students to “become more sensitive to the consequences of a long history of prejudice and discrimination,” according to its 1973-1974 annual report. The center’s purpose was “to provide a positive reflection” of minority students’ “cultural origins,” wrote Assistant Provost Conrad Snowden, including political panels.

One such speaker that Sotomayor’s group brought to campus was Puerto Rican Nationalist and Socialist, Manuel Maldonado-Denis, “The National Liberation of Puerto Rico.”

I have come from a colonized country, submitted to cultural assimilation and cultural aggression," Maldonado-Denis told the students at TWC. He continued to accuse the United States of "dominating," "fleecing" and "exploiting" Puerto Rico. The United States, he said, has always treated Puerto Rico and the other Latin American countries as "small children that must be taken by the hand." “The only solution” Maldonado-Denis said at the lecture, "is through the establishment of national liberation and the establishment of socialism."

The legacy of the Third World Center continued after Sotomayor graduated. In fact, future First Lady Michelle Obama would later serve on its board. Almost a decade later, the political tone of the TWC was expressed in the group’s 1984 constitution with the following language: “We define the term ‘Third World’ as those nations and people who have fallen victim to the oppression and exploitation of the world economic order,” wrote the preamble. “This definition includes the peoples of color in the United States, as they too are victims of a brutal and racist socio-economic structure perpetuated by those who still exploit such groups as Asians, Blacks, and Latinos and who still occupy the homelands of the Puerto Rican, Mexican, Native American, and Alaskan peoples. Therefore, we must seek to understand the historical and contemporary ramifications of oppression we are to liberate ourselves from economic and social chains which bind us.”

While careful in her book not to associate with the “down with whitey” attitudes of many Latino students, Sotomayor wasn’t so circumspect in a speech she gave before the TWC on November 7, 1996, entitled, “The Genesis and Needs of an Ethnic Identity.”

At Princeton, I began a lifelong commitment to identifying myself as a Latina, taking pride in being Hispanic, and in recognizing my obligation to help my community reach its fullest potential in this society,” she said. “Accion Puertorriquena, the Puerto Rican group on campus then, and the Third World Center… provided me with the anchor I needed to ground myself in this new and different world.” Sotomayor further praised the methods of Manuel del Valle (Princeton class of 1971) and her friend, Margarita Rosa (class of 1974) in establishing the TWC. They, she noted with approval, “had demonstrated and taken over University buildings” to persuade the Princeton to build TWC.

Student Judge

Another episode from Sotomayor’s Princeton days that goes unmentioned in her book concerns her time as a student judge on the discipline committee.

While Sotomayor’s defenders like to claim that she is empathetic and able to put aside her personal feelings when serving as a judge, the evidence shows otherwise – at least in her college years. Sotomayor was unable to maintain her objectivity while serving as a student judge in a 1976 case  involving eight students charged with breaking into and ransacking the room of two openly gay students who were pressuring Princeton to adopt pro-homosexual nondiscrimination policies. In a letter signed by Sotomayor and published in the Daily Princetonian on Feb. 27, 1976, the actions of the accused students were condemned as intimidation. The letter was published a month before the case was even heard. Sotomayor, according to two former students with knowledge of the case, demanded that the students be expelled.

Eventually the eight boys were reprimanded, given a two-year probation, and censured in their permanent file, a punishment which the two gay students thought was “too harsh.”

“Censure is a black mark that they will carry for the rest of their lives,” said Douglas S. Brown ’79, one of the gay students whose room was invaded. “I question the educational necessity for voting censure.”

Both Brown and the other student asked the college for leniency for their assailants. "They're well aware of the seriousness of their actions. I'm convinced that they're sorry," he said. "I feel for them as people, and I respect them very much," he continued. “Brown suggested the controversy which surrounded the incident may have adversely affected the offenders' chances for a fair hearing,” wrote The Daily Princetonian. “‘There was more to it than just the merits of the case —the supercharged atmosphere, so much strong language.’”

Empathy from the self-described “wise Latina” apparently didn’t go very far.

Charles C. Johnson is author of Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America's Most Underrated President 

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