By Conor Clarke
When I see a walking, talking anachronism like Pat Buchanan say on MSNBC that Sonia Sotomayor isn't qualified for the Supreme Court because she's an affirmative action baby (via Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ezra Klein), I think back to one of the favorite conservative criticisms of race-based affirmative action: It will forever tar the accomplishments of its beneficiaries. In a way, the fact that Buchanan's worry is so widely shared is obvious proof that this criticism is true. And, in a way, it just proves that the criticism is self-fulfilling. If the same people who doubt the efficacy of affirmative action also doubt its beneficiaries, there's nothing terribly interesting about the latter critique.
Mostly, however, I think it underlines the importance of thinking and talking about affirmative action as a program designed to alleviate a lack of opportunity (e.g., systematic racism, poverty) rather than accomplish some secondary goal (like better classroom discussions).
I made one version of this argument a couple of days ago -- and expanded it here here and here -- but I want to add a few more points. At the heart of Buchanan's critique is a sense that anyone who was a benficiary of affirmative action in the past cannot be well-qualified today. I don't think this argument can stand scrutiny.