Are Legacy Appointments Racist?

All the talk about Caroline Kennedy being appointed to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat has stirred up mixed feelings in me.

I love the Kennedy legacy, yet I feel this kind of multigenerational star power appointment could be de facto racism because there’s no chance for most qualified minorities to compete with the sheer awe of the Kennedy name and place in history. According to most reports, by announcing her interest in the seat, Ms. Kennedy has put enormous pressure on Governor Paterson to appoint her, eclipsing other candidates. Once she’s in, the seat could be locked up within a patrician family for decades in this very multicultural state. And what about the multicultural elected officials who have paid their dues to merit a shot at this opportunity to represent their diverse region? What if there are other great thinkers, entrepreneurs, and social advocates who might be equally or more qualified for the position? Is it fair that the Kennedy name eclipse them all, thrusting their hard work and potential into the shadows of Camelot? Is it racism?

Let me reiterate that I cherish the Kennedy legacy. Not only did I grow up admiring John F. Kennedy and his family’s progressive ideals, I actually occupied the same dorm as JFK while at Harvard. Then I earned my Masters in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government. Inspired by President Kennedy’s vision, I emerged from Harvard with a burning passion to serve America and make the world a better place. Grateful for the family’s contributions, when Caroline Kennedy announced her interest I was initially enthused.

But the more I thought about it, the worse I felt about the candidates shoved to the sidelines, hard-working and accomplished people with qualifications but inconsequential family names. And what about those who would be inspired by the choice of a multicultural candidate, someone who cut his or her teeth in the hard-scrabble barrios, ‘hoods and public schools rather than at private academies and on museum boards? Not only would a multicultural appointment send a great message to New York’s diverse populace but also to those demonstrating deadly aversion to that diversity, perpetrating hate crimes like the recent killing of an Ecuadorian immigrant in Brooklyn. The message would be that New York belongs to all types of people, not just those with aristocratic pedigrees.

I actually lived in the City recently before returning to my native Texas. In that time, I witnessed a talented pool of diverse leaders who are serious contenders based on their credentials, among them: Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn), Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. All three have proven their mettle in electoral politics and devoted years to public service in their communities. Rep. Velazquez, originally considered a front-runner for the spot, withdrew her name from consideration after Ms. Kennedy’s announcement. Could it be that Ms. Velazquez recognized how badly the odds were stacked against her once the Kennedy star power appeared on the horizon?

Arjun Jaikumar, Contributing Editor for the Daily Kos, writes:

Kennedy and Cuomo (Andrew) are probably the frontrunners at this point. Which means, that…(Paterson) is picking between the daughter of a former president and the son of a former governor and frequently touted presidential candidate, to succeed the wife of a former president in the U.S. Senate. What chance do mere mortals have?

This scenario represents the vestiges of feudalism thriving in America. If mere mortals have little chance, how about those who hail from traditionally underserved, underfunded, and emerging communities?

What concerns me is not whether Ms. Kennedy would be a competent Senator, as I’m sure she would be, but whether we are enabling de facto racism via an aristocratic approach to this appointment. You see, for the time being, no Ruiz or Rodriguez can leverage generations of American wealth, leadership and celebrity to attain a powerful, prestigious position simply because we want it. So while appointing a qualified Park Avenue heiress is not blatantly, proactively racist, it de facto leaves qualified minorities toiling in the shadows, overpowered by the legacy of the long-ruling elite. Perhaps if Ms. Kennedy ends up withdrawing her name from consideration, Ms. Velazquez would reconsider jumping back in the fray. I’m not sure, but I’d welcome a chance to learn whether change in America will thrive only in Washington or reach all the way to the boondocks of New York.