A picture of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

What the Term ‘Diversity Hire’ Gets Wrong

Fox News host Tucker Carlson questioned Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s credentials following her Supreme Court nomination. “It might be time for Joe Biden to let us know what Ketanji Brown Jackson’s LSAT score was. How did she do on the LSATs?” he said (MSNBC). Carlson’s request to see the score on Jackson’s law school entrance exam differs from his handling of past SCOTUS nominations. He didn’t ask to see Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s LSATs score before saying, “there’s no question that Barrett is qualified for the job.” He also didn’t need to see her score before he said, “on any level [Barrett] is a remarkable person…maybe the most impressive person to receive a Supreme Court nomination in memory” (Yahoo News). His line of questioning was exclusive to Jackson, who, despite her extensive resume and qualifications, failed to be the exceptional Black candidate worthy of such a position. Instead, she is labeled a diversity hire.

The term “diversity hire” has been weaponized by white, cisgender men as a way to invalidate marginalized people’s qualifications:

“People assume this talent was hired, not because of their merit, but because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or other criteria. Others assume that standards were lowered to make it possible for diverse candidates to meet job requirements. Thus people labeled diversity hires are often resented, rather than respected” (Inc).


• For employers: understand that committing to diversity isn’t just hiring more marginalized people but ensuring that the work environment and culture are inclusive and uplifting for all employees. Support the creation of an employee resource group.

• For recruiters and hiring managers: Use sourcing tools like the Gender Decorder, which examines the language in your job descriptions and ads to determine if you’re using gender-coded words that might discourage applicants.

• Consider: why Black people are expected to be twice as good as white people to get half of what they have? How do terms like “affirmative action student” and “diversity hire” protect white supremacy and mediocrity?

The idea is that Black and Brown people can’t succeed on prowess alone. They must have gotten in through some unfair advantage or cheated the system. But even that racist rhetoric recognizes that institutional racism creates an unlevel playing field aimed at the continual oppression of marginalized people.

Carlson’s request mimicked that of President Trump’s crusade against President Obama. In 2011, he questioned the legitimacy of Obama’s Ivy League schooling, saying, “I have friends who have smart sons with great marks, great boards, great everything, and they can’t get into Harvard” (NBC News). 

Attempts to discredit the qualifications of minorities are commonplace in a system built on white superiority and exceptionalism. Black excellence is seen as an anomaly. Success, especially at the expense of white candidates, is considered the result of affirmative action or diversity hiring. And criteria to determine who qualifies as the exceptional Black or Brown person in these predominately white institutions is arbitrary. 

Black employees are monitored by their employers more than white workers to a degree where even small mistakes are scrutinized (National Bureau of Economic Research). As a result, they are subject to worse performance reviews, lower wages, and more frequent job loss, even if their productivity exceeds that of white employees.

For Black people in America, you have to be twice as good as your white counterparts. And even that’s not enough. 

Gymnast Simone Biles was penalized in 2019 when she became the first woman to complete the Yurchenko double pike on vault in a competition. Judges underscored Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, citing the moves’ safety risk (NPR, USA Today). But for Biles and many critics, it was apparent that she was being punished for executing maneuvers that other gymnasts are not physically capable of doing. 

“They keep asking us to do more difficulty and to give more artistry, give more harder skills,” she said. “So we do, and then they don’t credit it, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

Even in death, the lives of Black people are scrutinized to determine whether their murder was warranted or not. Police sanctioned murder is acceptable if the victim refuses to comply quietly (CNN) or their character is described as that of “no angel” (BBC). Being an exceptional Black person in life can determine whether you’re characterized as a “thug” in death (CNN) and whether or not your contributions are historic yet palatable enough for recognition during the one time of the year when white observers celebrate Black excellence. 

It’s 2022, and Black people are still hitting “the first” benchmarks. The first Black American Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. The first Black senator of Georgia. The first Black Vice President (New York Times). It’s monumental to be the first. But in acknowledging these feats, we must also address the glaringly obvious cause: systemic oppression and discrimination make it impossible for people of color to succeed. And when one does prevail, it’s a fluke that must be investigated. 

But Judge Jackson is qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice, even more so than some currently sitting on the bench (Mother Jones). In fact, having such undeniably exceptional qualifications that her college scores are the only thing opponents could scrutinize is probably why she was chosen. But her exceptionality should never be measured by the standards of white superiority, which often promotes white mediocrity over Black excellence.


• Black women’s qualifications are challenged in a demeaning and racist attempt to discredit them. 

• Being an exceptional Black candidate or “model minority” sometimes allows access to predominantly white spaces — with heightened scrutiny. 

• Black people are still hitting “first” milestones due to systemic racism preventing mobility and success.

2238 1386 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture.

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