THE BLOG
07/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When the Exception Proves the Rule

Even in New York, a city that claims the utmost diversity, the lines are drawn. A forceful inertia keeps people in their neighborhoods, which form a tapestry of blocks of colors, many of which have quite clear boundaries. There are few Manhattanites who cross the streets that demarcate, say, the Upper West Side and Harlem; who will traverse the few blocks from the rows of Thai restaurants and organic stores to the areas nourished primarily by cheap fast foods. Thus, it was accidentally ending up crossing through the projects the other day when it occurred to me:

Whether for or against, people from all sides of the debate around Sonia Sotomayor's nomination for the Supreme Court are prone to begin the explanation of their opinion with an admission that she has an amazing story. Incredible: A woman with such a "humble background" could rise to the highest court in the land. Born in the South Bronx, raised by a working class mother, by now we all know how she made it from the "a drab yellow kitchen" in the projects, to Princeton, then Yale, and into the limelight.

The article or opinion begins with some sort of acknowledgment of her biography, and the fact that it has been central to the discussion of her nomination. One comments on her amazing success story, then shifts the conversation to her credentials. The next debates whether or not biography matters and will affect her interpretation of the law. (As if upper-middle class white people don't have life stories that could affect their rulings? As if the wealthy and privileged are more objective than someone who may have experienced poverty?)

The very fact that commentators feel a duty to acknowledge Sotomayor's history says something quite significant: it says that we are surprised. It admits that her trajectory is a rare one. It points to a contradiction in the American psyche.

We in the U.S. take great pride in our rags to riches stories. It's not called the American Dream for nothing: Where else can you rise to the top from positions of great disadvantage? And yet when it actually happens, we're astonished. Why? Because at some level we know that this takes place incredibly rarely. We think that pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is emblematic of our culture, and yet when someone actually succeeds, we're all amazed. What is a bootstrap anyway? Most of us have a pretty foggy idea -- maybe because there are few boots with straps still in circulation. And if the boots don't have straps, we're stuck sitting where we're sitting. There are about as many ways to lift yourself up these days as there are boots with straps.

We love to boast that America is a place of great equality, the land of possibility and social mobility. But our neighborhoods continue to be segregated by race and class (how often do you go above 125th street?); women continue to be paid less than men (although thank you, Lilly Ledbetter); and the prison system is vastly disproportionate (63 percent of inmates are black or Latino, even though they constitute just 23 percent of the total population, according to Human Rights Watch). Our sheer surprise when someone is able to move up significantly from the class into which they were born and rise to power, shows that this is in fact so rare that it bottlenecks the news.

One opinion piece I read suggested that Judge Sotomayor was able to make it up through the ranks because of the fairness of the system and the laws, which she would seek to uphold. But in fact, this system remains mired in social disparities that are proving hard to budge. The National Council on Child Poverty writes that the US has one of the highest rates of economic inequality and child poverty of any developed country, and economic mobility is actually on the decline. The wealth gap between the income of the rich and the poor is at its highest since 1927. 60 percent of black and Latino families are considered low income compared to 26 percent of white and Asian families. We know that being raised in poverty can impede a child's ability to learn and lead to social, behavioral and emotional problems. Add that to Thomas K. Lowenstein's research that shows that 7 percent of black children (nine times more than white children) have a parent who is incarcerated, and children of inmates are five times more likely to resort to criminal activity. You do the math. But the bottom line is that if you're a minority, chances are you've been born to a low-income family and possibly a parent who is incarcerated; and if so, you will be pretty lucky if you don't end up incarcerated too. There's a vicious cycle here, and that's a systemic problem.

We're amazed by the bootstrap phenomenon because we know the odds: You're born poor, you stay poor. You're born rich, you stay rich. There may have been a time in American history when boots had straps, when a rugged individuality was extolled and this myth was created. But we realize now that we are born into and exist in families, communities, systems, with an immense effect in determining our options and our futures.

Now more than ever, when we have amazing examples of people who have indeed burst through the social barriers of our society, when we're listening to Obama's eloquent speeches and watching an Hispanic woman being examined for a possible appointment to our Supreme Court, let's not romanticize America. If we're proud that these courageous people have achieved what they have, then before we pat ourselves on the back for the fairness of our society, let's remember that we wouldn't consider their success a big deal if they weren't exceptional. These exceptions prove the rule. Which means there is a lot more work to be done.