When Is Minority Participation Representation, and When Is It Tokenism?

In Minnesota, the recent decision which overturns the congressional affirmation of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act from the 1960s provoked an inappropriate tweet from a democrat in the state legislature, Rep. Ryan Winkler.

I find myself torn between respect for the office of Justice of the Supreme Court, and what has appeared to me to be a long series of poor opinions, inaction, and extreme ideological decisions that are consistently harmful to the progress of legislation and efforts to mitigate racism, gender and other inequality in the United States.

Even before this development, I had been considering how to define tokenism, and settled on the concept of a minority or disadvantaged, or under-represented group in the ranks of those in political or governmental power, including both elected and appointed office, where authority and/or power is not available to those few representatives, or where it is exercised against one or more minority groups, and in support of the majority.

So for example, I looked at the number of women in Congress, from each party, and the roles their parties assigned to them, such as committee chairs and other positions of authority, versus serving largely as spokespersons and figureheads without any real access to power and influence.

The Center for American Women and Politics had a great fact sheet that breaks down some of these figures by not only gender, but minority ethnicity/race. From that fact sheet looking at both houses of Congress combined, women fill 98 of the possible 535 seats, with 20 in the Senate, and 78 in the House, along with three delegates – one each from Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Washington DC. Sixteen of the 20 senators are Democrats, four are Republicans. Of the 78 women in the House, 59 are Democrats, and 19 are Republicans; and the three women delegates are Democrats also.

Of the women serving in Congress in 2013, “30 are women of color”, divided as “14 African American women, 7 Asian Pacific Islanders, and 9 Latinas”.

On the Supreme Court, we currently have three women Justices, all three of them appointed by Democratic presidents – although to be fair, the first woman Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, was appointed by President Reagan, a Republican. There was a considerable dry spell in Republican nominations of women after that.

So, apart from the rudeness of the tweet content —– HAS Justice Thomas acted in support of the white, and largely male majority in consistently pursuing a far right conservative position in his rulings? Is his failure to speak during public hearings in the SCOTUS and the rarity with which he writes either a majority or dissenting opinion a failure to assert the full role of his office? In other words, IS Justice Thomas an example of tokenism, someone to be used as an example or claim of acceptance, but who does not in practice demonstrate an active role in exercising their position?

New Hampshire has an all-female delegation to Congress this year — two of them Democratic representatives to Congress, and one each Republican and Democratic women in the Senate. The numbers alone are not enough; what we need to know to separate token women or token racial or ethnic representation is to follow what power and influence they are allowed. We need to ask the question, what do they DO, and for whom they do it? As well as how are people affected in the majority and minority groups by what they do?

Famous icon from the Ms. Magazine Foundation circa 1972 advocating for racial, gender and orientation equality, reflecting the rise of both feminism and the success of the civil rights movement.

And as noted in the USA Today article, Record Number of Women in Congress Out to Change Tone:

In the Democratic-controlled Senate, Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski is the first woman to wield the chairman’s gavel at the Appropriations Committee, which allocates federal spending for nearly all programs. Washington Sen. Patty Murray leads the Budget Committee and California’s Dianne Feinstein heads up the Intelligence Committee. Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow leads the Agriculture Committee, California’s Barbara Boxer is chair of the Environment Committee and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu is in charge at the Small Business Committee.

On the House side, where Republicans are in power, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington holds the fourth-highest position in the GOP leadership, as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. There are no Republican women in charge of high-profile committees, but Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan is chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, which deals with such issues as office budgets and technology of members.

Given the number of necessary DOJ interventions, the long lines and disproportionate other difficulties that faced minorities in conservative states, and other factors in the assessment by Congress prior to the most recent re-affirmation of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the SCOTUS decision in which Justice Clarence Thomas not only participated but went beyond in his opinion seems a clear example of tokenism.  He seems to have contorted his position to act on behalf of conservatives who are overwhelmingly white, male, and by reasonable metric largely privileged or advantaged over those who are in minority or under-represented demographics who are not similarly privileged and advantaged, and who are not even remotely equal in treatment by government entities. On that basis, Clarence Thomas would seem to be fairly characterized as a token black man on the SCOTUS bench in a way which does not appear to have been true for the women Justices, from Sandra Day O’Connor through the current female contingent of Justices.

When looking at the term Uncle Tom, I went to the segment of dictionary.com, that provides the most extensive word history:

Word Origin & History

Uncle Tom

“servile black man,” 1922, somewhat inaccurately in ref. to the humble, pious, but strong-willed main character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852). The image implied in the insult perhaps is more traceable to the late 19c. minstrel show versions of the story, which reached a far wider audience than the book. “I don’t recall anyone in the 1920s using the term ‘Uncle Tom’ as an epithet. But what’s amazing is how fast it caught on (in the 1930s). Black scholars picked up (the term) and just started throwing it at each other.” [Ernest Allen, quoted in Hamilton, Kendra, “The Strange Career of Uncle Tom,” Black Issues in Higher Education, June 2002]

As a verb, attested from 1937.

Rep. Winkler has apologized, frequently and profusely for tweeting in a manner that was not politically correct. While rude, I am not so sure he was not perhaps technically correct however to criticize Justice Clarence Thomas for catering to white racism and to perpetuating voting inequality in order to conform to conservative ideology, consistent with white male political dominant traditional power structures. I find myself in quite limited agreement with Rep. Winkler, without approving of his tweet.

I will look into further examples of political partisan alignment, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation in subsequent articles. While this distribution is not exclusively partisan, it also does appear to be more of a pattern in one party than the other, but the exceptions are as informative as the rule in those cases.