Conservatives may abhor affirmative action, but they adore tokenism. So there is a certain elegance to the emerging right-wing argument that Sonia Sotomayor is “Obama’s Harriet Miers.” Its absurdity clarifies the key distinction between how Republicans and Democrats view gender and race.
Affirmative action, when properly practiced, means casting a wide net in search of highly qualified candidates—candidates who not only will excel in a job, but who can improve an institution through the unique perspective they bring to it. Tokenism, on the other hand, means reaching for the nearest woman or person of color around, regardless of his or her qualifications.
Barack Obama’s choice of Sonia Sotomayor—a federal judge, former prosecutor, and lifelong scholar—is an example of affirmative action. Yet George W. Bush was practicing pure, unabashed tokenism when he made his ill-fated nomination of White House crony Harriet Miers to the highest court in the land.
If affirmative action, as a policy, is to survive into the 21st century, liberals should not be afraid to claim it and expand its definition. Yes, President Obama clearly considered race, ethnicity, class background, and gender in compiling his Supreme Court shortlist and settling on Sotomayor. But why shouldn’t he have?
In recent years, the court has rolled back decades of legal precedent protecting workers, consumers, and the environment from the caprices of corporations. It has devalued school integration and seems likely, this term, to overturn key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. This is a court badly in need of the perspective of an individual who grew up poor, female, and Latina. All the better that, by any objective standard, Judge Sonia Sotomayor was among the 100 or so most qualified people in the United States for the job of Supreme Court justice. Could you ever have said the same thing about Harriet Miers?
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor at The American Prospect. Her writing has also appeared in Slate, BusinessWeek, and The New Republic.