This Wednesday – 50 years ago – was a momentous day. In 1963, The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place, culminating in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Today, Obama, will commemorate that afternoon. The half-century anniversary of MLK’s signature Civil Rights rally has allowed the country to both appreciate how far we’ve come and evaluate the work that has yet to be done. As Owen Ullmann, a participant 50 years ago, penned in his USA Today column, “The largest protest in U.S. history had gathered, not in anger, but in hope for a better future for everyone.”
“The Great March on Washington” was an expression of frustration with the federal government that failed to represent the interests of the poor, the under-served, and the oppressed. Today’s politics, mired in complaints of being “out of touch,” and “the party of Lincoln” (the worst/best used moniker out there) marked as too white and non-inclusive, indicate a government that is also not properly representing the ideals and interests of its constituents. Our American republic, which vests its people only the right to determine elected representatives who then go on to make decisions on their behalf, is only as effective as the people who make the big decisions themselves. But when the makeup of your government isn’t reflecting the changing demographic of the country, just how effective or even representative can government be? Just how literally should we take Lincoln’s notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people?”"
As tempting as it may be to point to the paltry 7% of Congress represented by Hispanic/Latinos who comprise 16.3% of the national population, or the sobering fact that the female 51% of the population is represented by only 18.7% in Congress as major reasons for our political dysfunction, it is misguided and not in the spirit of MLK’s idealism and challenge to want more and expect more from each other. For ultimately our politics should ideally and eventually be about substance and solidarity on the issues — not skin, sex, nor some other pre-ordained characteristic assigned to us by forces out of our control.
The March on Washington movement’s call for raising minimum wage (jobs) and passage of meaning civil rights legislation (freedom) were economic and social divisions that closely followed along racial lines. Race, an integral part of the American psyche, has been an even hotter topic this summer with the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer, President Obama's reaction to the event, and immigration reform, the SCOTUS decisions to strike down key provisions (Section 5) of the Voting Rights Act and to mostly uphold Affirmative Action in the case Fisher v. University of Texas and the today’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
When looking at the complexities of representative democracy, the ideas of Descriptive representation — where those elected share politically relevant characteristic-based (e.g. ethnicity, gender, occupation, age, geographical area of birth connections with constituents) — and substantive representation – ideology-based connections with constituents – are useful lenses to exploring race in our politics. When we're separated and re-districted into pseudo-homogeneous communities that elect representatives to serve in a national government, who and how we identify with our government and politics has a huge influence on our decisions and the progress of our society.
What would our ideal composition of government entail? If our ideal government requires not only the expressed preferences of its constituencies but also hold a representative sample of the voters they are meant to represent (i.e. our governments would hopefully be proportional in-line with our country/state’s demographic breakdown) then we are far from proportionality.
Below is a chart of the racial breakdown of the U.S. population, via the 2010 Census.
When the national demographics are compared to the racial and gender composition of Congress, the results are striking.
Out of 541
% of Nat’l Pop.
% of Congress (Total number)
(Source: The results of a very detailed and fascinating report by the Congressional Research Service of the Federation of American Scientists profiling the current 113th Congress can be found here)
*Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is expected to win his election in October 2013, which would make him the first elected African-American in the Senate since Obama.
** There is only one sitting African-American Senator in the chamber: Tim Scott. He was appointed. As of 2013, out of the almost 2,000 current and former members of the U.S. Senate, only eight had been African-American. Only three of the eight had been popularly elected.
The results speak for themselves: Our legislative body does not even remotely mirror the national demographics.
However, despite the unsettling statistics, this does not mean minority groups are not without elected legislators that advocate on their behalf. It does not take someone with the same background or appearance to fight for issues that are very pertinent to groups that the legislator cannot relate to descriptively. The Great Society Acts, the greatest set of civil rights and welfare legislation this country has ever seen, was enacted by none other than a white, southern leader named Lyndon B. Johnson, who continued on the momentum built by his predecessor John F. Kennedy — an affluent scion of a politically powerful New England family. JFK’s youngest brother, the late Ted Kennedy, was a “liberal lion” in the Senate, advocating for the poor and universal health care throughout his tenure.
In fact, just how could any one person adequately represent any diverse district/state/country. No Barack Obama could singularly represent, descriptively or substantively, the hundreds of ethnic communities in the U.S. In our electoral system of winner-take-all single-member districts, it is near impossible. Only in gerrymandered districts, voting districts drawn for pure political advantage, could a single person descriptively fit an entire district (say 90% or so of the same ethnicity). And yes, both parties are horrendously good at re-districting, not just Republicans in 2010. Democrats are guilty, too. To further complicate matters, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, protecting minority voters from practices and procedures that dilute their voting strength, enables lawmakers to intentionally draw majority-minority districts — which, when done strategically, can dilute influence or render it redundant. These ideas between descriptive and substantive representation are not mutually exclusive, though at times it may seem like we can have only one or the other.
Be that as it may, race is still a powerful force in politics. Some of our lawmakers still caucus by ethnicity (most notably the coveted Black Caucus), and our media and politicians campaign to entire ethnic communities, effectively acknowledging while simultaneously perpetuating the interesting idea that ethnic constituent groups identify themselves with certain issues or positions (i.e Blacks are for welfare, Latinos anti-abortion because of religious belief, etc.). Throw in the fact that some definitions and groupings of political identities don’t quite make sense (i.e Asian-American – no shared language, history, or even geographic relation other than being the big ol continent of “Asia”) and its no wonder race is such a conundrum.
Representation in our democracy is integral to what lies ahead. What will make a more perfect union? One where ideas drive the process, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and upbringing? Or one where the faces in charge embody (fairly or not) the beliefs of America's multi-cultural, multi-racial society. Or is there a middle ground to be achieved? If Congress was represented proportionally in-line with nation-wide demographics (gender, race), would that constitute "equal representation?" Or would that only be superficial and naïve given the vast socio-economic complexities and the idea of privilege.
Although many of us argue over the scope and purview of government action, few would argue the magnitude of the actions our government, in its immense capacity, can do to change our society. Sure, government can’t fix all of our problems, and true, government may in fact be creating some of our problems. But there’s no other institution whose power is so grand and so sought after. So whom will we entrust with the responsibility of government: those who look more like us or those who think more like us (even if that means they look more like someone else?)s
Some thought we might have entered a post-racial society with the election of Obama. That is far from the truth. However, what remains to be seen is whether the barrier has been crossed for other historically underrepresented groups to have their day in the sun now. A Hispanic, a woman, or a Canadian (or multiple of these categories) could very well be the next President of the United States. And if he/she is not one of these demographics, then this person must somehow appeal to these growing political groups (minus the Canadian).
Race is a sentiment that has shaped and will continue to shape the American experience. It is a peculiar part of our national identity that is suppressed and hushed but manifests itself in very apparent ways. So let us today have tempered optimism, admission to progress but reluctance to suggest anything other than immense work that still needs to be done. We should march towards a day when our entrusted public servants are judged, MLK said, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Though we’ll need a whole lot more diverse set of leaders before anyone can believe that, we’ve made it to the mountaintop to hear freedom ring.