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.