Identity Politics on the Court Must Be Subtle | Opinion

Much of the good that Democrats do gets washed away in their tributes to identity politics. Their actual policy proposals tend to poll quite well, but then their leaders blow a lot of support when they announce hiring decisions that leave huge numbers out of consideration.

Yes, President Joe Biden campaigned promising to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court. No, he shouldn't have.

The problem is not nominating a Black woman to replace the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. There are plenty of qualified legal scholars who are Black and female. The problem is making a big announcement that only Black women need apply.

One can argue that Republicans play that game, too. Right-wing mutterings about white superiority are an appeal to identity—a rather ugly one, given this country's painful racial history. But Republican strategists also cross the tracks and select nonwhites and women for visible positions, just with more delicacy.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan openly announced plans to nominate the first woman to the Supreme Court. He also shouldn't have, but it was notable that, until then, the court never had a member from the gender shared by half the American population. Fortunately, Sandra Day O'Connor was a superb pick.

Other Republicans did the identity thing without taking out the trumpets. When Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice retired in 1991, George H.W. Bush replaced him with another Black justice, Clarence Thomas. And it was undoubtedly no coincidence that Donald Trump named a woman, Amy Coney Barrett, to the chair vacated by the feminist hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The political analysis of Biden's promise, mainly from the left, leans on the dubious assumption that Black women voters, a significant part of the Democrats' base, need some kind of reward for their loyalty. (Such arguments often come with unhelpful carping about the things that Biden wanted to do for them but couldn't magically pull off with a split Congress.)

U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

The idea that Black women vote identity rather than their interests is itself a bit insulting. It presupposes a lack of sophistication in making political calculations. Perhaps, just perhaps, these voters are more focused on who could serve their economic interests than on the appearance of the person they'd entrust with them.

If Black Democrats insisted on being represented by Black people, the Democrats would have nominated Kamala Harris or Cory Booker in 2020, rather than Biden. Biden rose from the back of the primary pack thanks to the support of Representative Jim Clyburn, the Black power broker from South Carolina. Clyburn saw Biden as an ally who could beat Trump, and he was right.

In recent elections, some Latino and Black support for Democratic candidates has edged down. So much for the allure of racial pandering.

The allegedly liberal-friendly media continues to encourage the race-obsessed labeling. After the recent New York mayoral election, it was almost funny to see the winner, Eric Adams, routinely described as the city's "second Black mayor."

Fourteen years after Barack Obama became the first Black president, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about New Yorkers electing a mayor who is Black. The more notable part of the outcome was that Adams was arguably the most conservative of the Democratic candidates. Of course, describing a politician's race, ethnicity or gender is a lot less work than analyzing where he or she stands on various issues.

I dislike references to Biden's age, but there is something dated about his habit to view race as either Black or white. There are no Asians on the court or American Indians. But if Biden insists on going the identity route, could he at least be subtle about it? Please.

Froma Harrop is an award-winning journalist, author and syndicated columnist.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.