I agree with Megan McArdle that conservatives are making a huge mistake by focusing their attack on Sotomayor around the idea that she’s not really smart and must have benefited from preferences for minorities. As Megan says, everyone gets networking advantages based on race, ethnicity, religion, and so on: white people benefit from white networks, Jews benefit from Jewish networks, blacks benefit from black networks. Fundamentalist Christians were massively over-represented in new hires by the Justice Department during the Bush Administration. And the reverse: everyone gets discriminated against, in other contexts.
But beyond issues of cronyism, there is a natural good governance interest in seeking out diverse leadership. Everywhere in the world, effective governments recruit diversity in order to extend their reach throughout the population, to represent the popular voice in a broad and inclusive fashion and to be able to project government authority into diverse minority communities. This is something that governments do. They do it because it works. And it’s not just government; any organization that wants to gain access to diverse social communities and resources needs to recruit diverse members. And for that reason, elite leaders of under-represented communities will always be recruited by effective organizations because of their community background, regardless of whether or not there are official government affirmative-action programs administered by law.
Think about Sotomayor: no one is even trying to claim she benefited from official government-mandated affirmative action programs. Instead they seem to be claiming that private institutions like Princeton and Yale gave her preference because they saw their private interest in recruiting diverse student bodies, and that President George H.W. Bush appointed her to a Federal district court because he felt the courts needed a diverse bench.
This is not an ideological or single-party issue. When I was in college, an illustrious graduate who had just been elected to the alumni board asked me to get together a group of students to have dinner with him, so he could find out what undergrads were concerned about at the university. He was an old blue-blood and a former ambassador to the USSR. “Don’t make it a bunch of white men,” he told me. In the end, because of my inferior recruiting skills, I screwed it up — both black people I invited declined; I had one white female, one gay Hispanic male, and a bunch of white men. I think the black folks felt they were being recruited…because of their race. So these things are complicated. But looking at it from the board member’s point of view, one can understand perfectly why he wanted to have dinner with a diverse cross-section of the undergrad population. That kind of dynamic will always be present, and top people from under-represented or outside-network groups will always “benefit” from it.
If you avoid recruiting people who are different from you, you’ll have nothing to counterbalance your natural tendency to recruit people from the group you belong to. And then you wind up where the Republican Party is right now: unable to govern, in part because it has no ties to large segments of the country it seeks to rule. But in any case, conservatives right now aren’t presenting any evidence Sotomayor is unqualified or isn’t smart. There is no such evidence. The woman graduated summa cum laude from Princeton for chrissakes. Instead conservatives are arguing simply that Sotomayor should be presumed to be unqualified or not smart, because she is Hispanic. There’s no way for that line of thinking to stop itself before it careens into all-out racism.
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