Merit, more broadly defined
Ray Ring's article "Is Obama's goal of diversity trumping other goals?" suggests that the administration's decision to hire minorities for key governmental positions compromises environmental goals in favor of ethnic diversity (HCN, 8/17/09). While there are undoubtedly some traditional "heavy hitter" white men who would merit these positions, merit in this context should be understood more broadly. Effective advocacy on behalf of the environment is an important prerequisite, but getting ethnic minorities increasingly involved in the field, including through the announced nominations, might bring even greater benefits to the field.
Rightly or wrongly, the environmental movement is popularly perceived as a group of white people advocating for the interests –– aesthetic and normative –– of other, frequently privileged, white people. As the movement seeks to communicate the universal importance of the impact of environmental degradation and the value of ecosystem services to a larger audience, it will benefit from the inclusion of minorities in key governmental positions.
Another recurring issue in the field is the unequal access to resources and exposure to environmental harm disproportionately experienced by ethnic and minority communities. Here, too, new minority leaders might help facilitate conflict resolution and empower minority voices. This is not to say that white leaders do not have the experience and desire to engage minority communities, but new ethnic leaders send a stronger message of self-determination and the importance of the issues to such communities.