Editor's Note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here
Ruben Navarrette says attaining a diverse work force doesn't mean giving up excellence.
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- More than 20 years ago, I got into an argument with a college roommate over affirmative action -- one I've thought about since President-elect Barack Obama began nominating people to serve in the Cabinet and White House staff.
Back in the day, I supported racial preferences. Today, I oppose them -- not because I buy the fairy tale that such policies discriminate against white males. They don't.
What bothers me is that racial preferences hurt those they're supposed to help by lowering standards, stigmatizing beneficiaries and camouflaging the degree to which African-Americans and Latinos are shortchanged at the K-12 level. But that's a discussion for another time.
Specifically, my roommate and I were arguing about whether companies or corporations that wanted to employ a diverse work force had to sacrifice quality in the process.
My roommate, who was white and considered himself a progressive, believed that was precisely the concession that had to be made. I disagreed, insisting that diversity need not come at the expense of merit.
The way my roommate saw it, the employer had to make a decision -- hire the minority or the most qualified. I found it interesting that, in his scenario, the "minority" and the "most qualified" were never the same person.
The conversation took place just five years after President Ronald Reagan broke the gender barrier by nominating Sandra Day O'Connor to be the first female Supreme Court justice and three years before President George H. W. Bush broke a different barrier by appointing Colin Powell Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
All this came rushing back to me in the past week or so when I heard various pundits and politicos talk about how Obama should brush aside "identity politics" and just choose the best person for each position. That had a familiar ring to it.
So it's not possible that someone with a diverse background, or maybe a woman who had to strive to succeed in a political system still dominated by men, could be the "best person" for the job?
For the people who believe that -- and, trust me, they're out there -- it would seem that only a White House staff and Cabinet made up entirely of white males would pass muster.
Here's the good news: That is not what is emerging from the now-taking-shape Obama administration, although initially there seemed to be more racial and gender diversity in the Cabinet than on the White House staff.
Some of the first names that circulated for White House positions were those of white men -- chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, chief congressional liaison Phil Schiliro, counsel Greg Craig and the reported selection for press secretary, Robert Gibbs. The exception was longtime "Friend of Barack" and confidant Valerie Jarrett, chief executive of Habitat Co., a Chicago real estate developer and manager, who was named senior adviser.
National Organization for Women President Kim Grady told a reporter that it "would have been nice to see more women" in the initial round of appointees, but that was before Obama filled more staff posts with women and minorities.
Obama's reported choices for the Cabinet are definitely encouraging -- former Clinton Justice Department official Eric Holder as attorney general, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle as Health and Human Services secretary will bring a combination of expertise and perspective.
And of course, there is the rampant speculation that Hillary Clinton might be nominated as secretary of state. If that doesn't happen, Obama's second choice could be another presidential candidate -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Hispanic governor in the country.
It's all part of what Jarrett described in a recent television interview as the "jigsaw puzzle" of Obama putting together an administration that "represents the diversity of our country, diversity in perspectives, diversity in race, diversity in geography" while still choosing "the best person for each position."
There was a time in our nation's history where striking that balance may have been difficult, even impossible. Now it's easier. The credit goes to years of expanding opportunity and breaking down doors along with hard work, sacrifice and achievement from legions of pioneers who carved out their version of the American Dream.
We've arrived at a place where you can hire someone with a diverse background who gives you a new and valuable perspective and still embodies excellence. If you doubt it, just look at the president-elect.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.