Recently, the New York Times produced video footage of a panel discussion during which Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor stated that her standardized test scores (not grades) were below the average of persons at Princeton and Yale Law School. Although she ultimately graduated from the top of her class at Princeton and performed excellently at Yale Law School (which does not "rank" students), conservatives who oppose affirmative action have used these comments in order to depict Sotomayor as an undeserving beneficiary of race-based admissions policies.
There is one glaring problem with their analysis, however: The edited video footage deletes Sotomayor's statement that she "is from what is traditionally described as a socio-economically poor background," which leaves the impression that Princeton and Yale only considered "race" as an affirmative action category. Media Matters uncovered the misleading reports (on Fox, MSNBC and in the NYT).
Many studies show that academic performance in college and graduate or professional school correlates more strongly with prior GPA than with standardized tests. Furthermore, it is well known that expensive test preparation courses, which benefit the wealthy, can add significantly to a test-taker's performance. It is unclear whether Sotomayor enrolled in professional test preparation courses, but it is unlikely that she did.
Also, Sotomayor's gender probably played a tremendous factor in her admission to college and law school, but most conservatives have reserved their anger for race-based affirmative action. Undoubtedly, graduating summa cum laude from Princeton, one of the highest ranked universities in the world, strongly influenced the Yale Law School admissions committee (as it should have). This remarkable achievement, however, receives little attention from individuals who seek to blame affirmative action for their own irrational refusal to appreciate her intellectual power (and the achievements of other persons of color).
Although conservatives argue that affirmative action "stigmatizes" persons of color as inferior, this racial stereotype predated affirmative action by centuries, and it clearly remains a part of American culture. This stereotype operates so powerfully among those who accept it, that even the top graduate from one of the world's top colleges and law schools cannot escape it. Blaming affirmative action for this patent bigotry is an act of cowardice.
Ironically, conservatives have chosen to deemphasize Sotomayor's poverty even though they often advocate affirmative action on the basis of "class," rather than race. I have always doubted the sincerity of the class-based "alternative" (often, affirmative action is based on race and class), given conservative opposition to antipoverty programs -- which often portrays beneficiaries as lazy persons of color. Nevertheless, if the class argument comes from an honest place, then conservatives should point to Sotomayor's academic and professional success as vindicating -- rather than delegitimizing -- societal efforts to extend opportunities to poor and disadvantaged individuals. Instead, they have chosen to downplay or question her obvious success and to vilify an individual who succeeded despite her severe disadvantages. This approach is politically suicidal -- not to mention deceitful and hypocritical.