THE NOMINATION of Margaret Marshall to the Supreme Judicial Court galls Frederick L. Brown, a judge on the Massachusetts Court of Appeals. In part, the Marshall nomination makes Brown's gorge rise because he wanted the job. In part, he is irked by what he sees as Marshall's skimpy legal experience (she has been practicing law for 20 years). But what really stirs Brown's bile, what really sickens him when he thinks of Marshall on the SJC, is her race and ethnic origin.
Judge Brown, it seems, is one of those people who believes that appointments to high office should be based on color and ethnicity. Certain races and ethnic backgrounds take precedence, in his view, over others. Some skin tones are superior, some inferior; judicial nominations, he holds, should be parceled out accordingly.
Marshall is white. She is an immigrant from South Africa. In the World According to Brown, that puts her at the back of the bus.
"It is a regrettable day in the history of Massachusetts," Brown fumed last week, "when a white person from South Africa is appointed to the SJC before any black person." Not merely regrettable, he said, but a "perverted joke."
There is a word for people who believe that positions should be distributed according to a pecking order based on color. The word is spelled r-a-c-i-s-t. And it applies equally to those who put white South Africans at the top of the pile -- and those who put them at the bottom.
Brown's any-black-is-better-than-any-white-South-African dogma has been heard in these parts before.
In 1991, Dr. Michael Eliastam was named medical director of Boston City Hospital. His resume included multiple degrees from renowned universities, senior positions at Stanford University Hospital and the six textbooks he had written or co-authored. He'd practiced medicine in Chicago's ghetto in the '60s and '70s, joined a team of physicians who traveled to the Mississippi Delta to care for the sick, volunteered at free clinics, opened a medical center for the homeless in San Jose, and been active in the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a doctors' auxiliary to the civil rights movement.
But Eliastam was white. He was an immigrant from South Africa. And to some people, nothing else mattered.
"Eliastam, whatever his qualifications are, is a white South African," hissed Bill Owens, then a state senator. "There is a mentality to people born in South Africa, and even if he doesn't have it, we don't need to be sending this kind of message." Owens is out of office now, but his bigotry clearly lingers on.
Like Eliastam, Marshall was seared by the brutality of apartheid in her native land. She threw herself, in her youth, into the fight to end it. She eventually left South Africa because -- as she told a group of new American citizens in 1995 -- "I was not safe there."
That says something about Marshall's character, even as Eliastam's profound history of service to the poor said something about his. But to the Frederick Browns and Bill Owenses of this world, the content of people's character matters less than the color of their skin or the geography of their birth. It is a repellent attitude. But it is hardly unique to Brown and Owens.
From the moment Chief Justice Paul Liacos announced his resignation from the SJC, every discussion of who would succeed him has focused on physical characteristics. Egged on by the media, Governor William Weld made it clear from the outset that he would fill the vacancy with a black or a woman. To judge from his remarks, there was no other credential he particularly cared about. Legal philosophy? Judicial temperament? Intellectual brilliance? Commitment to justice? Nope. Weld expressed an interest only in gender and skin color; the sole question was, Which outranked which? The search turned into a tug-of-war between those demanding that a woman be named and those pressing for a black. (The Globe's editorial page boldly endorsed one of each.) Rarely is the quota game played more nakedly.
Consequently, when Weld introduced his nominee last week, nothing mattered more than her race and sex. What was noteworthy about Marshall was not her student activism, her career in a Boston law firm, her term as president of the local bar association, her position as Harvard's general counsel, her pronounced liberalism, or her immigrant's "love affair" with the United States. It was her white, female body.
Never mind Marshall's views on the law. Never mind her personal history. Never mind the speeches she has given, the articles she has written, the opinions she has expressed. Weld had picked a white woman and not a black man, and the nomination would be judged on that basis alone. And so the headline in the Herald read, "Female SJC nominee irks minorities." And in the Globe: "Black leaders critical of SJC choice." The objection was not to anything Marshall had ever said or done, but to what she is: the wrong color.
Yes, Virginia, there are still fools and knaves who believe that human beings come in right and wrong colors. Some call this belief "diversity." Others have called it "apartheid." It is always spelled r-a-c-i-s-t.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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