Can Fairness Be Forced?

Television coverage of the inauguration gave me some food for thought. I was on CNN and MSNBC, and I noticed that during the inauguration coverage, both stations chose to display many images of specifically black faces when they showed individuals from the audience listening to the proceedings- something they haven’t done so prominently before.

Obama himself chose a diverse cast of characters to surround the proceedings. Straight white anti-gay mega-church pastor Rick Warren, openly gay white bishop Gene Robinson, black civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery, black poet Elizabeth Alexander, Aretha Franklin, and others.

Apparently, Obama’s identity as an African-American is having major ripple effects in the status of blacks on the national political stage and in less public circles of influence. The Washington Post reported that suddenly, the DC elite are trying to prove their inclusiveness by adding blacks to their party invite lists.

With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong. Certain hosts are suddenly grappling with a new reality: They need some black friends. Overnight, black politicians, lawyers and journalists are hot properties, receiving engraved invitations from people they never got invitations from before.

It took an extraordinary black man to set in motion this turn of events.

Though she didn’t make the cut, a similar effect can be seen from Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency. She was the only primary candidate party of either party to actually have (slightly) more female campaign staffers than male- the first time this has ever happened, I believe. Several candidates who ran in the primaries had very few women involved in their campaigns at all (Giuliani, Thompson), which has been the norm, historically speaking. It took an extraordinary woman to overcome this imbalance.

I also believe that Obama’s and Clinton’s prominent candidacies in the Democratic primaries had a lot to do with McCain’s choice of a woman for his running mate. He must have been well aware of the nature of criticisms he would receive if he picked yet another elderly white man after the Democrats managed to produce an unusually diverse pool of candidates. I do not believe Palin was picked *only* because she was a woman- she clearly appeals to part of Bush’s “base” that McCain didn’t appeal to. However, I think he and his advisers knew that they had little chance if they couldn’t show the tiniest bit of diversity on their ticket.

From the above, we can see that prominent, powerful, and visible members of traditionally-oppressed groups in society have an enormous ripple effect upon American society. It makes me wonder if an extraordinary individual from a traditionally-oppressed group who manages to achieve prominence against all odds doesn’t have a greater effect on societal inequality from above than careful work at the grass roots level to slowly build equality (gender, racial or otherwise) and to slowly encourage candidates to run at local, then state, then federal level. It seems like a lot of problems that “bottom-up” organizations face are instantly improved, if not ameliorated, when an extraordinary individual reaches prominence.

But is it fair or strategic to wait for an extraordinary individual, someone who is not only intelligent, charming, and ambitious, but who can overcome the extra disadvantages of membership in an oppressed group and who is ready to bear the burden of equality not just for hirself, but for hir entire demographic? Even if the ‘extraordinary individual’ scenario moves the fight for equality along faster than the bottom-up approach, it requires submitting ourselves to pure chance.

You know what this makes me consider? Quotas. 99 countries already have quota systems in place for positions of political power, including countries from Sweden, South Korea and Poland to Palestine, Tanzania, and Kazakhstan. I am aware that India has quotas not only for women, but for disadvantaged castes. Could quotas work here?

Could it be a way to move faster than the bottom-up approach, but yet without depending on the occasional appearance of extraordinary individuals to carry much much more than one person’s burden? I.e. can we simply force fairness?

Your opinions are welcome.


9 thoughts on “Can Fairness Be Forced?

  1. A very interesting suggestion – I really want to read up on how quotas work in other countries before I’d feel comfortable expressing a real opinion. Quotas bear a traditionally bad taste for some, much like affirmative action, in that there is a possibly valid claim that more-qualified people are cut out of the system. Regardless, if it works and helps out in the long run, then I’m for it. I mostly just want to know about the way it works elsewhere. I mean, 99 countries is a lot of countries, though!

  2. Yeah. If you click on the words “99 countries” in my post, the link takes you to a website dedicated to studying quotas in government/politics. So that could be a start.

    Also, I would just like to point out that affirmative action doesn’t select for less qualified people based on race & gender. Its premise is that if a selection committee has two excellent candidates who are equally qualified, they are supposed to choose the minority candidate.

    I know what you’re saying about many Americans viewing aff action negatively, though. Which is a pretty good indicator about how they would view quotas in government.

  3. Lots of interesting thoughts..

    I noticed the focus on African-Americans during the broadcast too, but in this case it does make sense, as that was an epochal moment for that crowd. I think the crowd was also loaded with people of that persuasion. Kinda like the conventions; you saw a lot more POC and women at the Dem convention because there WERE a lot more.

    This is not to say that the networks didn’t exploit this epochal day in their transparent and cheap way.

    As far as quotas I think the idea has merit, though I have no idea how they function in other countries. I’ve had the typical white upbringing to think of quotas as unfair and inefficient, but I’m aware of the source of that meme….

    The only immediate problem I could see is applying that to the highest offices, like Senate seats. Obviously the Senate is not a good representative of our country, but how do you mandate that people elect POC to represent them?

    Good stuff, thanks as always for taking the time to write!

  4. Scorn said… “Obviously the Senate is not a good representative of our country, but how do you mandate that people elect POC to represent them?”

    I really recommend checking out the website I mention in my comment above to see what’s out there as far as extant quotas.

    One solution to the problem you mention is to require the parties to have an equal number of men and women, and/or proportional numbers of POC, on their primary ballots.

  5. Well, as far as informal quotas, I read that in New York Gov. Paterson wanted to replace Hillary Clinton with a woman to keep the number of women in the Senate:

    “Publicly and privately, Mr. Paterson has talked about the importance of selecting a woman to replace Mrs. Clinton, which could boost such candidates as Ms. Gillibrand, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers.”

    The same was said when there was talk of rescinding the offer of a senate seat to Burris, from Illinois, which would have left, I’m not sure, no black members of the Senate?

    While the idea of quotas would chafe people on all sides, there is a counter idea that if disadvantaged groups become less represented, it is a regression.

    I think that there is a big problem with quotas, among other things:

    1. How much does my vote count? Let’s be real, politics is not a measure of qualifications. Herbert Hoover had great qualifications, but is looked upon as a horrible president. If quotas force my vote to go to someone else, then I may be less inclined to vote, or worse.

    When it comes to comparative governments, I’m unqualified to judge either way. Our government has been complex enough for me to understand, and trying to understand continential European governments is really hard for me! But, perhaps in those systems, it is easier to have quotas?

  6. While instituting a quota system is an interesting idea, one problem I foresee is the devolution into tokenism. I agree that institutions should be more inclusive but there is a marked difference between diversity and equity. Barack Obama’s election has done a lot for the national discourse on race but I think I’m more ready to submit to the idea that he ascended to the highest office in America despite institutional oppression, than to the belief that there is less institutional oppression now that a person of color is president.

    The Washington Post excerpt provided above makes me think there is a lot of tokenism going around Washington D.C. right now. It’s great that politicians are more willing to accept people of color in their social circles but I wonder if those POC feel comfortable being the only or one of the only non-White people in the room. I wonder if they are comfortable associating with White people who never felt the need to be friends with a POC before the election.

    @ Wellsmus–
    it’s not just about qualifications, but what you do with them. I think Herbert Hoover is remembered as a horrible president because of his response to the Great Depression.

    Getting POC into positions of power does a lot for advancing equality but there is also a lot of important work to be done on the ground. Creating an environment where POC feel like they are truly welcomed, supported, and allowed to be themselves is crucial, not only to placing them in positions of power, but also to keeping them there. A lot of POC grow up with the idea of having to “learn the rules” in order to advance in society–you can be who you are within your own community but you must adopt a different persona when trying to negotiate predominantly White institutions, lest you be accused of being “difficult to work with” or “having an attitude,” or (god forbid) “being loud.” It can be really difficult to be the one or even one of a just a few of POC in the room.

  7. cp said… “While instituting a quota system is an interesting idea, one problem I foresee is the devolution into tokenism.”
    “Getting POC into positions of power does a lot for advancing equality but there is also a lot of important work to be done on the ground. Creating an environment where POC feel like they are truly welcomed, supported, and allowed to be themselves is crucial”

    These are really powerful comments, and they have definitely made me think. You make an excellent argument for the “on the ground work” and point out the failings of simply instituting a quota system alone.

    Do you think we should:
    institute a quota system now, to get POC and women into equal power now, while continuing to do the “ground work”
    focus on only the ground work now because the quota system at this time would do more harm than good?

  8. That’s a tough one for me to answer. I would love to live in a world where people, unprompted by outside forces, just recognized the value of including POC, but I know it’s unrealistic to expect that. So while I really love elegant solutions that do not force people into anything, I can’t think of a more effective solution than implementing quotas while continuing to do the ground work.

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