Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearings highlighted the rift between meritocracy and diversity

Here is Senator Cory Booker speaking to Ketanji Brown Jackson on the third day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing:

So I’m walking here, first week I’m here, and somebody’s been here for decades doing the urgent work of the Senate, but it’s the unglamorous work that goes on no matter who’s in offices, guy comes up to me and all he wants to say, I can tell, is 'I’m so happy you’re here.' But he comes up, he can’t get the words out, and this man, my elder, starts crying. And I just hugged him and he just kept telling me, 'It’s so good to see you here; it’s so good to see you here. Thank you, thank you, thank you.'

There may have been a bit of grandstanding with Booker’s comments (he has a history of that). But I felt this one.

Booker is tapping into the emotional benefits of diversity. These are benefits that rarely make it into the conversations about diversity and representation, but they may be the most important of all.

Meritocracy vs. diversity

Meritocracy and diversity are often pitted against each other.

The pro-meritocracy side argues that diversity initiatives, especially affirmative action, is unfair. With respect to college admissions or employment, they argue that it is discriminatory to select a person based on a quality that has nothing to do with actual performance.

White and Asian students, the logic goes, have done what is necessary to attend a college or gain employment, but lose out to Black and Hispanic applicants simply because they were not the right color. Martin Luther King would roll over in his grave, they would assert.

A second, less frequent argument focuses on damage done to beneficiaries of diversity initiatives. This is the “mismatch theory” proposed by UCLA law professor Richard Sander, who says affirmative action places students in settings in which they are destined to fail.

The pro-diversity side has at least two counterarguments.

First, while few expect complete equality in terms of representation, large gaps suggest discrimination or bias are exacerbating differences in outcomes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise about 17 percent of the engineering workforce. A primary reason for this low number, the argument goes, is because of societal gender roles and expectations pushing women away from majoring in engineering. Diversity initiatives help correct for these dynamics.

Second, pro-diversity advocates argue that diversity benefits people other than the minority group. This is the primary reason why educators and some employers support affirmative action or diversity initiatives. The son of a Mexican immigrant would presumably have a different perspective on a classroom issue or a workplace concern than someone who identifies as white or Black. Having a diversity of opinion in knowledge-generating spaces is an irrefutable good.

I tend to side more with pro-diversity arguments, but neither the pro-meritocracy nor pro-diversity arguments tap into what Booker’s comments to Judge Jackson signify for many minorities.

The nod

“The nod is important. It is the internationally accepted, yet unspoken sign of acknowledgment of Black folks around the world.”

These words were from a scene in the ABC series Black-ish.

The main character, Andre Johnson, is upset that his son did not nod at another Black student at his primarily white school. By not nodding, his son was not being Black enough – a major theme in the show.

His son, living in a privileged environment and not experiencing racial exclusion, was being Black-ish. Meanwhile, Andre had grown up in Compton, went to historically Black college Howard University and was the first Black executive at his advertising firm.

The person who went up to Booker and told him “thank you, thank you” was doing some version of the nod.

At the confirmation hearings, Booker was doing something very similar to Judge Jackson.

When I seek out a new faculty hire and give them my contact information and make it clear they can contact me if they need anything, I am doing a version of the nod.

People who are “the only” in schools or places of employment gain emotionally when diversity initiatives bring in more people they can identify with. I am not entirely sure white Americans, especially white male heterosexual Americans, are aware of these emotions.

Maybe I can explain.

First is a sense of belonging.

When you are one of the only ones in a space, you can feel a sense of isolation. You may even feel like an imposter. But when you see a second or third person like you, and they acknowledge you, then you feel as if you belong.

This is a fundamental human emotion.

Imagine showing up to soccer or cheerleading tryouts and being surrounded by kids who had been there before or all knew each other from elsewhere. There is that voice in your head saying “should I be here?” You want someone to, well, nod at you and say they see you and recognize you.

There is also a sense of shared struggle.

I suspect the elder doing “unglamorous work,” as Booker describes it, is in a support staff or custodial position. Very much unlike the Stanford-to-Oxford-to-Yale Booker. But the elder and Booker share the experience of navigating a particular space as Black people.

There can also be a sense of pride and possibility.

Booker is not only navigating that space alongside the elder but doing so from a position of authority. It is one thing to identify with someone and acknowledge a shared struggle. It is another to meet someone who is emerging triumphant from that struggle.

Booker emerged triumphant.

As did Jackson.

If they did it, why can’t you? Why can’t your kids?

A way to understand this is to imagine someone from your small hometown making it big. You don’t share their paycheck, but you feel a little pride when they “represent” your hometown. People from that hometown can reason that if that person made it big, they can too.

The merits of diversity

Conversations about merit and diversity tend to ignore the psychological benefits of representation.

On the one hand, I get it.

It’s hard to quantify emotions like a sense of belonging or feeling pride. It is much easier to look at raw numbers.

The folks arguing for merit tend to focus on SAT scores or some other metric to show how unfair a focus on representation is.

Meanwhile, the folks supporting diversity initiatives are keen to look at the gaps in representation and argue for higher numbers of minorities in a particular field.

Even the support for a diversity of opinion tends to be about the wider number of views that people are exposed to.

While these points are worthy of consideration, we must not overlook the emotional benefits of representation for historically underrepresented minorities. These emotional benefits are the bridge connecting meritocracy and diversity arguments.

When people feel they belong they are more likely to invest in the task at hand and be more productive. Bringing in more people from diverse backgrounds can make that happen.

This is one reason why schools seek out minority teachers. It is not because teachers of color are necessarily better at relating to minority students. It is because their presence signals to students of color that it is a space for them.

For those folks who are not in those spaces, diversity initiatives can show people on the outside looking in that they can be a part of those spaces.

That Black girl making early life decisions as a freshman in college may decide to dedicate herself to the law, rationalizing that if Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson can become a Supreme Court justice, so can she.

In this way, there is merit in diversity.