Sonia Sotomayor and Affirmative Action

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.

That's because one's qualifications in the present are a function of one's opportunities in the past. There are very talented white children born in the lap of luxury on the upper west side of Manhattan, and there are equally talented Hispanic children born in poverty in the south Bronx. It should surprise exactly no one, except possibly Pat Buchanan and Michael Goldfarb, to learn that they will not get the same SAT scores. An affirmative action system that corrects for this lack of balance is not taking a "less qualified" person and putting her above a "more qualified" person. It is giving equally qualified people the same opportunities. This is liberalism 101, not rocket science.