The White House has touted Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's tenure as the dean of Harvard Law School as evidence of her practicality and ability to work across ideological lines. Others view her record there through a different lens: one sorely lacking in racial inclusion.
A chorus of black commentators and civic leaders has begun expressing frustration over Kagan's hiring record as Harvard dean. From 2003 to 2009, 29 faculty members were hired: 28 were white and one was Asian American.
CNN pundit Roland Martin posted a column slamming Kagan's record on diversity as one that a "white Republican U.S. president" would be criticized for. "There would be widespread condemnations of Republicans having no concern for the non-white males in America," he wrote.
Similarly, members of a coalition of black women sent a letter to President Obama on Sunday expressing both their concerns about Kagan, now U.S. solicitor general, and disappointment that a black woman was not chosen for the nation's highest court.
"Our trepidation regarding General Kagan is premised on the lack of a clearly identifiable record on the protection of our nation's civil rights laws," reads the letter, which was signed by Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Elise Scott of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and 26 others.
The White House has pushed back against the notion that Kagan hasn't been racially sensitive, releasing a set of talking points last week to civil rights lawyers and reporters that provide more context, according to Salon.com, which first reported the concerns.
A copy of the memo, obtained by PostPolitics, emphasizes that Kagan did not have the final say in hiring decisions at Harvard, where such decisions are made by a committee. The memo also argues that Kagan made other appointments and promotions that enhanced diversity, including moving two minority professors to tenured positions. Three of the 12 clinical professors hired were minorities.
Harvard Law Prof. Charles Ogletree, who worked with Kagan while she was dean, went further, saying that the raw hiring numbers at the law school provide a skewed picture of her full commitment to diversity. "She reached quite broad and deep in trying to ensure that diverse candidates were in the pool," he said. "There has never been a doubt in my mind about her commitment to diversity."
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler added that as solicitor general Kagan's "hiring record reflects a strong commitment to hiring qualified candidates of all races and genders." According to the department, Kagan's hires since March 2009 have included one white man, three white women, one Asian man and one Indian man.
The debate about Kagan's record began with an April 22 blog posting by Duke University law professor Guy-Uriel Charles, who along with three other law professors -- Anupam Chander at the University of California at Davis, Angela Onwuachi-Willig at the University of Iowa and Luis Fuentes-Rohwer at Indiana University -- sent a letter to the White House questioning Kagan's record on diversity.
"We raised these issues because we think that the question of racial inclusion should still be a priority for this country, because we haven't reached a satisfactory position on that question yet," Charles said in an interview Tuesday. "At the end of the day, one has to take the president's word that he is satisfied that Solicitor General Kagan has the vigorous commitment to racial inclusion that her former boss Thurgood Marshall had."
Part of the frustration, said Sherrilyn Ifill, a law professor at the University of Maryland and blogger at TheRoot.com, is the desire to see another African American appointed to the Supreme Court. "We don't feel that the fact that there is one African American on the court should be a factor. There should be no quota."