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How we talk about merit and diversity

After President Obama announced Judge Merrick Garland as his nominee to the Supreme Court, commentators praised Obama for emphasizing “merit” instead of playing into identity politics.

Constitutional law professor Michael Gerhardt, for instance, claimed in a Slate piece that Obama's nomination of Garland, who is white and male, “showed the nation what a merit appointment looks like. This is not to take anything away from the president's two prior Supreme Court nominees, each of whom was highly qualified.”

Gerhardt was referring, of course, to Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the Supreme Court, and Elena Kagan, whose confirmation brought the female share of Supreme Court justices to a record high of 33%.

This kind of remark is not only belittling— clearly it does take something away from Sotomayor and Kagan to imply they don't “look like” merit appointments— it also reveals deep problems in how we continue to think about merit and diversity, not only with respect to the Supreme Court, but also more generally in the workplace and in local institutions.

Many well-meaning pundits carry on as though only women and racial minorities have identities in the “identity politics” sense. But Garland isn't somehow neutral or invisible; he has a race (white) and a gender (male), and these characteristics certainly factored into the Obama administration's political calculus. Perhaps the president and his advisers guessed that a group of mostly white, male senators would find it hard to deny a fair hearing to one of their own.

More broadly, drawing a contrast between merit and diversity is a red herring. We hear it all the time when it comes to making employment decisions for highly competitive positions. In these cases, employers often have an embarrassment of riches: There are many excellent, highly qualified candidates, each bringing with them a different bundle of experience and talent.

Certainly Obama had no shortage of good options; rumor has it that before picking Garland, he considered Sri Srinivasan, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Jane Kelly and Paul Watford. None of them are white males. All of them went to excellent law schools and made their marks in various roles: circuit judge, corporate lawyer, sentencing commissioner, federal prosecutor and public defender. Garland was, by no means, the only potential merit pick of the bunch.

That said, merit is not the only consideration when we seek to strengthen our institutions: Diversity also matters. At a basic level, diversity helps to increase legitimacy, as people are more likely to trust institutions that look more like the communities they serve. This is particularly true of legal institutions such as courts and police departments, but — as we have seen from protests in the last year — lack of diversity can also pose problems for city governments, universities, newsrooms and entertainment studios.

At a deeper level, there are clear benefits to having a diverse staff, with people from a variety of personal backgrounds. For example, businesses including car dealerships and retail banks would be better off hiring more bilingual employees to serve an increasingly diverse consumer base. And the benefits of diversity extend well beyond sales and service professions. Even in research-intensive places such as technology startups, think tanks and universities, homogeneity may lead to tunnel vision whereas diversity often fosters surprising innovation.

It is a mistake, then, to draw stark distinctions between “merit hires” and “diversity hires.” Picking someone for a job is not like choosing the winner of a spelling bee or finding the highest scorer on a standardized test. It is about building a team that makes institutions stronger, more innovative and more legitimate — from our local workplaces all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is professor of public policy and associate dean at UC Riverside.

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 24, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "How we talk about merit and diversity" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe