Elena Kagan’s Diversity Fail, or, White Women Can Be Racist Too!

I’m sorry I’m not jumping up and down and imagining Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and new Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan having a slumber party just yet! It’s just this little thing: Kagan has a seriously dismal record on hiring both women and people of color (and of course, women of color) to fill tenure or tenure track positions.

To begin, and most notably, the White House does not dispute our basic facts. When Kagan was dean of Harvard Law School, four-out-of-every five hires to its faculty were white men. She did not hire a single African American, Latino, or Native American tenured or tenure track academic law professor. She hired 25 men, all of whom were white, and seven women, six of whom were white and one Asian American. Just 3 percent of her hires were non-white — a statistic that should raise eyebrows in the 21st Century.

I know white feminists were all excited thinking of three women in the SCOTUS at the same time, and queer folks were kind of excited because she might not be straight and she banned the military from recruiting at Harvard Law due to DADT. But hello! Just because she’s a woman and was nominated by a Democratic president doesn’t mean we should roll over and not demand that someone should be nominated who has a better track record on diversity.

If she was nominated by a Republican president, every social justice activist organization would be all over this record like white on rice. It’s inexcusable. And to say that the statistics don’t take into account offers made? Anyone who lets that slide by has the privilege to let it slide by. Powerful white women should be held to the same standard as powerful white men when it comes to racial issues. Period. I’m not sacrificing my race to save my gender because that would be inauthentic. I’m a woman of color, I have to be aware of both.

The fact that some white feminists think it’s enough that she’s a woman, that we shouldn’t critique what little record she does have, is just blatantly dismissive of the concerns of women of color. We don’t have court decisions like we did with Sotomayor. Kagan has never served as a judge. Which is fine, but that means the only way we can tell what her politics are is through the choices she made and the actions she took in the jobs she performed. Judging by that measure, I would say she’s neither a friend to other women nor to people of color.

The whole lock-step thing progressives tend to do when a Democrat is in office needs to stop. You can’t be a vigilant watchdog when the opposing party is in power but become a yappy puppy when your people roll into town. This is exactly why I’m not affiliated with a political party. For me as a black woman at the intersections of many oppressed identities I’ve only found that they’ll both fuck you and be gone in the morning. It’s just that one of them leaves a note.

I want to see anti-racist feminists take up this issue. Because so many times these things are sacrificed in the name of solidarity, like we shouldn’t mess this up because the “other side” will win if we don’t all just smile and let it slide. Who are we trying to please? Shouldn’t we hold everyone to the same principles, regardless of party? Maybe the fact that she only hired seven women out of 32 positions will wake white feminists up.

So yeah, I’m not too excited.

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  • http://evmaroon.wordpress.com Everett

    I am so pissed to hear this. My focus this morning was on what I was sensing would be the response from the right, because anyone short of Teacake Teabagger is unpatriotic to them, so I thought it would be telling of something to see how they would respond to a moderate left nominee. And just in one 24-hour period I've seen people call her Fred Flintstone, make cracks about her height and weight, make veiled homophobic comments under the guise of critiquing her stance against DADT, and wow, that's just the first day.

    Your criticism is disheartening, yes, because we do need to put equal demands on our leaders, no matter their or our party affiliations. While I don't think that making diverse appointments is in and of itself a progressive move (Clarence Thomas and Alberto Gonzalez come to mind), it speaks loudly when the statistics are that bereft of people of color. That is more than disappointing, and possibly also a long-time trend at Harvard Law School, one of the epicenters of white elite power, but I write this not knowing the statistics off hand on that.

    A very valid critique, Tasha, thanks for posting this. As usual, you're speaking truth to craptastic power and I for one, appreciate the come to Jesus.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      It's just unfortunate that valid critique gets lumped in with the unnecessary bullshit coming from right-wingers. I'm pretty sure they're just going to brush these racial issues aside as more chaff.

  • http://thewholestylenetwork.com Ellie Di

    I'm just starting to hear about Kagan (I'm an American who moved to Canada and the news travels a bit more slowly), so this kind of insight is invaluable. I've heard a lot of criticism of her on many different levels. It's *not* enough to be a woman, a Democrat, or whathaveyou. The appointees to the Supreme Court need to be excellent minds that have the experience as a judge to make the tough decisions required of them. Everything I'm hearing about her has me concerned that she simply doesn't measure up but will be appointed anyway.

    Thank you for illuminating this particular aspect of the problem.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I really wonder why Obama didn't draw from the pool of lower circuit judges. This is just obvious cronyism.

  • http://disabledfeminists.com Anna

    As someone who really really does not understand how your system works Down South (so my opinion counts for squat), I appreciate this post.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      Our system is generally fucked up, which is why these kind of things slide by!

  • Ashley

    I don't know enough about the applicant pool of academic law positions to know if I think her hiring practices are discriminatory. I am a white woman who is currently looking for an academic position myself, and the main thing this has driven home for me is how incredibly complicated academic hiring is. In short, you can't hire people who don't exist in the applicant pool. I do personally see a lot of schools who are making tremendous efforts to hire qualified women and minorities for tenure-track positions. If a school is interviewing from a non-diverse candidate pool, they actually often have to provide documentation detailing the demographics of the applicant pool nationally to demonstrate that while their candidates may not be diverse, it's who was available. If the applicant field for a position is 94% white men (which in my case it is) and a school interviews 5 candidates, most of the time, all of them will be white men. Again, I don't know the demographic makeup of the applicant pool for law professorships, but in the physical sciences (my field) it's really hard to hire certain minority groups because there simply isn't anyone to hire.

    As you can tell from my long lead up, I think the problem is further back than at the level of academic hiring. It's in the applicant pool. When I was in graduate school, there were approximately 200 grad students in my department. There were only two African American men, one African American woman, no Native Americans, and two Latino men. That was the total availability of diversity. Anyway, I don't know if criticism of the lack of diversity of Kegan's hiring is warranted or not. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. But there is tremendous, tremendous under representation of many minority groups in the highest levels of education in the US and that issue certainly deserves notice.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      The article I linked says this, which I think is telling:

      These are the facts that the White House does not try to defend because these facts are indefensible. For those who think that more women and minorities qualified to serve on the Harvard Law faculty were simply nonexistent, one need only look at Harvard’s primary rival–Yale Law School. There Dean Harold Koh led the law school during almost the same period (Dean Koh, from 2004 to 2009, and Dean Kagan, from 2003 to 2009). Dean Koh hired far fewer faculty members–just ten–but he still managed to hire nearly as many women (5 of 10 at 50 percent), and just as many minorities (1 of 10 at 10 percent) as Dean Kagan.

      So I don't buy the excuse that there weren't any POC or women in the pool.

      • William

        Perhaps Dean Koh hired several of the women and the a minority that Dean Kagan would have liked to have hired? As the article mentioned, the schools are rivals and they almost certainly hire out of the same pool of applicants.

        Is it possible that out of all the applicants that met the criteria of both schools, that there were only 13 women and 2 POC?

        I think it's somewhat disingenuous to argue a position based on a statistic, without being open to what that statistic really represents.

        • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

          I'm open to what it represents but I think it's HIGHLY unlikely that Yale scooped up ALL the qualified female/poc candidates. What with all the race fail going on at HLS and Kagan's refusal to address it I'm guessing that she didn't try too hard to promote diversity. However, she aggressively hired conservative professors, so if she was looking for women or poc with that particular worldview I can see where she may come up short. Which is not a good thing at all.

  • Maggie May

    There are a lot of facts we will never know about the Harvard hiring situation. She had expanded hiring, adding many new positions. We will never know what the pool for each of those positions looked like, how many POC or women were in each applicant pool for each position, were in each finalist pool, and Very Significantly, whether in fact POC or women got offers and turned Harvard down. Perhaps they don't want to work there. Perhaps terms could not be reached for their employment. Perhaps they had better offers. I used to work at one of the 20 "top 10" law schools. Hiring at an elite law school is far more complicated than it might appear. For example, at any one time, how many professors are seeking new employment teaching Criminal Law in a given year? If you are Harvard, you are either looking to poach a tenured professor from another elite law school, or hire a very very awesome associate professor from another elite law school, or, in certain instances, hire from practice/clerkship. You are not hiring from the mass of new graduates. And you are only looking to hire professors who themselves graduated from the elites. Then of those people aforementioned, in a given hiring cycle, how many are POC or women? It is a small number. Yale did statistically better but before making absolute comparisons, I would want to know the subject matter etc for those positions in order to compare with the far larger Harvard numbers. At the elite law school I worked at, you could go all 3 years and never have a female professor.

  • Maggie May

    I don't know how to embed links but there is an interview of Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree by Cynthia Gordy at huffingtonpost.com from yesterday which also explains the role of a dean in the hiring process.

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  • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

    Thanks for that link, Ev.

  • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

    I heard about that. It's just appalling to me how much HLS gets away with.

  • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

    That's great that you've started getting your alma mater involved. Hopefully this issue gets more attention over the next few days.