For the second time this year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared on Sesame Street. Yet while her first appearance provided fairly tame moral guidance to the show’s young viewers — that there are two sides to every case and that people should work together to solve their disagreements — her latest trip to Sesame Street provides far more of a window into the justice’s life and the kind of America she aspires to live in.
Strong egalitarian and feminist notes underlie Sotomayor’s appearance, which is framed as a conversation between the nation’s first Latina justice and the child fairy character Abby Cadabby about what it means to have a career. When Abby asks Sotomayor “what kind of job can a girl like me have?” Sotomayor responds that she can “go to school and train to be a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer and even a scientist.” Yet the most important exchange comes when Abby initially tells the justice that she “wants a career as a princess.” No, Sotomayor explains, a career is a job that you “train for and prepare for, and plan on doing for a long time.” Watch it:
A person cannot earn royalty — they can only be born or marry into it. Sotomayor’s dialogue with Abby is a reminder that we do not live in that country. Or, at least, that America aspires to be far more. The fact that it comes less that a week after America narrowly chose a self-made man over the millionaire CEO former governor son of a millionaire CEO former governor makes this reminder all the more important.
Yet Sotomayor’s trip to Sesame Street is also more personal. As a child growing up in a Bronx housing project, the young Sotomayor was as far as one can be from being a princess. Yet she became one of the most accomplished and powerful people in the country because, in her own words, she “went to school and studied long and then became a judge.”
This is, of course, an oversimplification. No one becomes a federal judge, much less a Supreme Court justice, without a deep understanding of politics, powerful benefactors, and a good deal of luck. Sotomayor also glosses over many of the sad realities of our education system, where a child who grows up in a poor school district too often enters adulthood at a disadvantage no matter now hard they focused on their studies. Indeed, Sotomayor herself had to spend her summers “reading children’s classics she had missed in a Spanish-speaking home and ‘re-teaching’ herself to write ‘proper English’ by reading elementary grammar books” even after she matriculated at Princeton University. Her predecessors on the Supreme Court bear much of the blame for these inequalities, and it may someday fall upon Sotomayor and four of her colleagues to fix them.
So her advice to Abby is more aspirational than it is a comprehensive guide to how a child watching PBS today can be a Supreme Court justice when they grow up, but it is also a far more powerful message for the child growing up in the south Bronx today than the “work out your differences” message of her first Sesame Street appearance. The children left to languish in inadequate schools by the forty year old decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which ruled that poor children are not constitutionally entitled to the same education as rich children, can do little now to fix the systemic injustices that plague our education system. Nevertheless, Sotomayor is telling those children that every time they aim high and study hard, they choose an America where you do not have to be a princess to be prominent — and that they should decide now to do their part in building that country.
Until five members of her Court are willing to reconsider Rodriguez, that may be the best that she can offer them.