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Supreme Court Short List Must Include Diverse Candidates, Author Says


The sudden passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has pushed Washington into a tense conversation about the process of replacing him. President Obama is now tasked with nominating a successor. Republicans say they are prepared to battle that nominee, whoever it may be. In fact, some Republicans say Obama shouldn't bother sending up a nominee at all. But many are waiting to see if the president might try to further diversify the Supreme Court, possibly nominating a woman, a person of color or an openly gay justice. Michael Eric Dyson joined us from Seattle. He is author of "The Black Presidency: Barack Obama And The Politics Of Race In America." Well, Professor Dyson, welcome back to the program. We always like having you on.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Thank you, sir.

GREENE: I'm just wondering, when you look at the Supreme Court vacancy, how important is race to you in the person the president chooses to nominate if he goes forward with this nomination?

DYSON: Well, we have, for instance, on the court now Judge Clarence Thomas, an African-American man to be sure but not committed to the fundamental practices as they have been historically adjudicated and put forth by civil rights communities and other African-American people. So the first qualification is a profound legal commitment to practices of justice. But certainly, that does make a difference in terms of the identity of the person who's being chosen for that spot.

GREENE: How much of a difference? Because I wonder if the president, let's just say, nominated someone who's white but made the case that this was, you know, the right person for the job, would he get flack from some, say, African-Americans in this country, some writers like yourself who think about race a lot?

DYSON: If the notion is we want the best person for the job but that person always turns out to be white, then we got a problem of racial blindness and the inability to see the extraordinary capacity of other peoples, of color, women and other minorities. In this case, the juxtaposition of either a person of color or a minority or the most qualified person is to miss the insistence that those who have been supremely qualified in the past have been systemically overlooked. And as a result of that, we've got to be conscious in our choices now to compensate for that historic legacy of inequality.

GREENE: Would it be important to you for the president to nominate a justice who is black?

DYSON: Of course, a black woman in particular, black women, women who have been deeply imbued with a sense of struggle against injustice on the issue of gender and race and who bring a diverse set of qualifications to the bench would balance some of the narrower considerations that have been in play historically.

GREENE: Couple things you've written about recently that come to mind that I'd love to ask you about in this context, you've suggested that President Obama has had a racial renaissance over the past year, that he's found some confidence to talk about race that you didn't see before. But you also asked how can this shift be more than words. Is this a moment of opportunity for him to make this shift more than words in your mind?

DYSON: Absolutely. To make real that renaissance is to engage in public policy that will last beyond his presidency. So in this case, I think the selection of a Supreme Court justice would secure Obama's legacy in regard to race, one that he has historically been reticent about and one that he has now come into his own with, and this choice would signify such an awareness and a commitment.

GREENE: Another thing you have said in writing is that Hillary Clinton has the potential to do more for African-Americans than the nation's first black president, Barack Obama, has done. What did you mean by that?

DYSON: Well, what I'm suggesting is that Barack Obama has forced himself to be quite conscious of the consequences of his behavior, and he hasn't had the ability to necessarily put forth public policy that explicitly directs itself toward the interests of the most vulnerable, who happen to be African-American. A white president wouldn't have the same set of circumstances that would preclude her for doing so. For instance, nobody's going to say to Hillary Clinton, hey, you're black, and as a result of that, you're connecting with and hooking up black people in a way that Obama would immediately be assailed for.

GREENE: And I just want to dig a little deeper here. I mean, you say that this president is constrained in that he can't necessarily put forth policies that explicitly help African-Americans. Are these potentially just fears that you believe he has or these are real concerns that you think he would suffer politically and suffer as a person for doing the things you're talking about?

DYSON: Well, there's no question he suffers politically. You know, when he spoke initially about the Henry Louis Gates arrest, the Harvard professor who came home from China, discovered his door was jammed, jimmied it open, was eventually arrested on his own porch, when he said the police acted stupidly, not only did his poll numbers tank, but the controversy reigned in this country for a week. In truth, he is the division himself. It's not like he introduces a racial division. His body, his black body in the White House is itself the division the nation thought it had overcome by electing him. And yet what it has introduced to is the reality that that same black body causes a great deal of fear and panic among many millions of white Americans. So yes, he's faced a quite a bit of resistance, and that does make a real difference, an empirical difference in how he governs.

GREENE: Professor Dyson, it's always great to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming on.

DYSON: Always great to be on your show, my friend.

GREENE: That's Michael Eric Dyson. He's author of "The Black Presidency: Barack Obama And The Politics Of Race In America." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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