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  • Technorati: graph / links

    Why tokenism may sometimes work


    by Sunny on 3rd February, 2009 at 9:25 am    

    Over at the American magazine The Atlantic, blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates (who has become a must-read) offers an intriguing argument in favour of tokenism. Reflecting on the win of Steele as the first black chair of the Republican party, he says:

    But I maintain that you have to begin somewhere. Conservatives have, for years, ridiculed Democratic diversity efforts and some of those efforts should have been ridiculed. There is no question that Geraldine Ferraro, for instance, was a token.

    But in the fight for inclusion, like most fights, your persistence is more important than your fuck-ups. The result of decades of persistent Democratic efforts towards inclusion yielded a primary featuring a white woman and black man, both of whom were talented heavyweight politicians-the anti-Ferraros, if you will. Because the GOP, has spent much of the immediate past, celebrating its own homogeneity is way way behind.

    This much I agree with. Many on the right say they value merit over even token attempts at diversity, but if they truly did then their organisations wouldn’t be so male-centric. For decades, meritocracy has been a code-word to carry on as before. Here, even the Libdems said they would focus on diversity within the party and got absolutely nowhere. But the evidence is still very mixed since Obama and Clinton are a small sample and it may be that we don’t get more women and black/Asian/brown candidates in America for ages afterwards. After all, the Senate and House of Representatives still remain very male dominated.

    Has tokenism within the Labour and Conservative party worked? It’s probably still too early to tell.



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    15 Comments below   |   Add your own

    1. Ravi Naik — on 3rd February, 2009 at 12:00 pm  

      But in the fight for inclusion, like most fights, your persistence is more important than your fuck-ups. The result of decades of persistent Democratic efforts towards inclusion yielded a primary featuring a white woman and black man, both of whom were talented heavyweight politicians–the anti-Ferraros, if you will.

      There is absolutely no evidence that Geraldine Ferraro (the only instance I can think of where Democrats showed a blatant display of tokenism) led to the appearance (and acceptance) of Obama and Clinton.

      Tokenism - where a sub-competent member of a minority group is selected just on the merit of being born that way - is detrimental to the cause of diversity because it amplifies the stereotype that minorities are incompetent. Clinton and Obama - clearly anti-Ferraros - show that tokenism is clearly not the path to victory.

      I agree with this part of his article: I think Steele has a Sarah Palin problem. Remember the silly math that had Palin giving Obama fits for the votes of women? Ultimately, that line of attack fizzled because, I’d argue, a lot of women found Palin embarrassing-an obvious token who wasn’t ready for prime-time. I think Steele is twice the politician that Sarah Palin is. But the question remains-How does he get black folks to look at him as more than a token? And how does he get that magic to extend itself to the broader party? Mel Martinez failed at doing exactly that for Latinos. Will Steele be any better?

    2. billericaydicky — on 3rd February, 2009 at 12:22 pm  

      Sunny,
      To say that you have lost the plot on this one begs the question what was the plot in the first place?

      You make the first mistake when you say “merit over even token attempts at diversity” is a policy of the right. It most certainly is not, I am of the left and always have been and am one of the most vocal opponents of tokenism as all it does is patronise ethnic monorities, fuel the BNP vote and we still end up with mediocrities.

      At the basis of your argument is the lie that white people and white society are racist and the balance can only be redressed by having in positions of power the exact number of representatives of every ethnic minority in the country in relations to the percentages they make up of the total population.

      You then go on to say that ability to do the job is not as important as, and may be irrelevant, tokenism and making the numbers look right. If you base any argument on race then you are, by definition, a racist.

      Now that all black shorlists are dead in the water there is now a lvishly funded campaign to “encourage” more ethnic minority women to get involved in politics. The whole thing is of course a money making scam because nobody, as far as I know, is keeping any woman from joinng a political party.

      If women from ethnic minority bakgrounds don’t get involved in their local communities through politics the reasons are almost certainly family, religious and cultural pressure and not the usual excuse racist whites even though we are going to get the blame.

      Just refect on the work token before you make a response.

    3. Sunny — on 3rd February, 2009 at 1:51 pm  

      Just refect on the work token before you make a response.

      Try reading my original comment before you make yours.

    4. dave bones — on 3rd February, 2009 at 2:20 pm  

      It is interesting how Black republicans are coming forward. This is definately going to be a good time for them whilst the party soul searches (Now where did we leave that soul??). I quite like this guy. I am sick of his youtube hop skip and jump editting but he is funny.

    5. Ravi Naik — on 3rd February, 2009 at 2:21 pm  

      Many on the right say they value merit over even token attempts at diversity, but if they truly did then their organisations wouldn’t be so male-centric. For decades, meritocracy has been a code-word to carry on as before.

      I really think you should measure what you are saying. If meritocracy is not getting diversity, then does that mean that minorities are not qualified? If that is not the case, then we need to fight institutionalised racism, not meritocracy.

      However, if minorities are not qualified, then what is the point of putting unqualified minorities for the sake of diversity? If Bush taught us anything is that we need competent people for the right job - if minorities are not qualified, then we should understand why.

      Diversity is about giving equal opportunity to equally competent people regardless of who they are - not for the sake of creating a Benetton commercial!

      You make the first mistake when you say “merit over even token attempts at diversity” is a policy of the right. It most certainly is not, I am of the left and always have been and am one of the most vocal opponents of tokenism as all it does is patronise ethnic monorities, fuel the BNP vote and we still end up with mediocrities.

      I totally agree. I am glad that’s one thing the right and left can agree on.

    6. Shamit — on 3rd February, 2009 at 2:21 pm  

      “At the basis of your argument is the lie that white people and white society are racist and the balance can only be redressed by having in positions of power the exact number of representatives of every ethnic minority in the country in relations to the percentages they make up of the total population”

      Billericaydicky

      Where did Sunny make that argument? Seems like he is making an argument against it. He wants heavy weight people with their own ideas to make it in those positions of power and influence irrespective of their colour or creed or religion.

      I think what he is arguing for is an organisation to have a truly inclusive approach — and promote talent where they find it. But they must try to bring in different perspectives and ideas from different walks of life. And I agree with that.
      **********************************

      A political party does best and serves the country’s interest best when it has a variety of perspectives that enables to make better policies that reflect the needs of all the people not some of the people.

      I am against affirmative action or tokenism based on race — I rather see it happen based on socio-economic conditions but the affirmative action should not be in the sphere of politics but in attempting to ensure every child gets a decent opportunity to get educated in a decent school. I wrote something on this a while ago and I think it still holds true:

      http://www.egovmonitor.com/node/17342

    7. sonia — on 3rd February, 2009 at 3:07 pm  

      ah interesting - i wonder, if ta-nehisi’s view on this will change over the years as did his view on ‘tokenism’ within dating. (or how i refer to it anyway) he’s the guy who first wrote about how he would only date black women because to do otherwise would be “letting the side down” (and who else would date black women if black men didn’t, an inspiring thought to all the black women out there!) and then later to say, actually, its about the relationship and the person and the race thing, well its an abstract thing…

      let’s wait and see

    8. fug — on 3rd February, 2009 at 3:50 pm  

      what forced this particular token is the election of obomber.

      what forced a more local token(brown labour candidate), in bethnal green and bro, was the election of white galloway who bore more brown tokens of honour at that time than anybody else.

      political tokens are part of the greater political negotiation.

      i give a big token of honour to nader, rather than to obama, if i had a token vote. but who would want to be a token in the first place? and whose token?

    9. Sunny — on 3rd February, 2009 at 5:46 pm  

      Ravi:
      I really think you should measure what you are saying. If meritocracy is not getting diversity, then does that mean that minorities are not qualified? If that is not the case, then we need to fight institutionalised racism, not meritocracy.

      However, if minorities are not qualified, then what is the point of putting unqualified minorities for the sake of diversity? If Bush taught us anything is that we need competent people for the right job - if minorities are not qualified, then we should understand why.

      Institutional racism is a tricky one - it’s more that there is cultural exclusionism, which ends up excluding not just minorities but women, working class people etc.

      Tokenism is a tricky one. Most of our politicians to be honest aren’t particularly outstanding at all. They’re mostly ordinary people who got into their position through various reasons, and some are downright stupid.

      So the context is different. I’d be much more worried about the token black/brown person becoming a doctor or representing me in court than as a politician. After all, do you see Labour ministers sounding very different? Conservative ones?

      The point that Ta Nehisi is making is a different one. A few days ago I posted about how Obama’s symbolism matters. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be so many women angry at Clinton not getting nominated.

      Now symbolism does have some impact. The question is, does it have an impact whereby it encourages more competent and intelligent people of that unrepresented demographic to also get involved and make it next time.

      The picture is unclear… I’m putting the question out there for discussion. What annoys me are people like bill who take such a stupid, hardline position that they’re interested only in ranting not discussing.

    10. Shamit — on 3rd February, 2009 at 5:52 pm  

      “Now symbolism does have some impact. The question is, does it have an impact whereby it encourages more competent and intelligent people of that unrepresented demographic to also get involved and make it next time.”

      Excellent question Sunny and if we look at the Indian example and look at minority politicians (I am looking at caste based politics) it seems they have gone the other way. If you take Ambedkar as the first symbolic and very credible representative and compare that to the politicians such as Mayawati etc then you have to agree that quality has suffered while quantity has increased.

    11. Ravi Naik — on 3rd February, 2009 at 6:52 pm  

      Institutional racism is a tricky one - it’s more that there is cultural exclusionism, which ends up excluding not just minorities but women, working class people etc.

      But there is no other way to tackle this in a meritocratic system. The hiring process should be transparent, and there should be a thorough justification for accepting and rejecting an applicant.

      Mind you, I am not against quotas - but they should never trump merit. A company might decide in hiring a woman over a man on grounds of diversity if they are both equally competent.

      So the context is different. I’d be much more worried about the token black/brown person becoming a doctor or representing me in court than as a politician. After all, do you see Labour ministers sounding very different? Conservative ones?

      True - but politicians (most of which probably don’t do much) seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. I also wonder Sunny, how many Asians look at Keith Vaz and say - you know I would like to be him someday.

      Society gains by having competent people: judges, doctors, lawyers, engineers, civil servants… we are better served by competence than just diversity for the sake of it. Though I agree that we should move to a setting that reflects society.

      Now symbolism does have some impact. The question is, does it have an impact whereby it encourages more competent and intelligent people of that unrepresented demographic to also get involved and make it next time.

      I believe it only has a positive impact when role models are actually outstanding, not because they were selected for their colour of skin or gender.

      What annoys me are people like bill who take such a stupid, hardline position that they’re interested only in ranting not discussing.

      I apologise if I also came out strongly. It is an excellent topic.

    12. Ravi Naik — on 3rd February, 2009 at 6:58 pm  

      Excellent question Sunny and if we look at the Indian example and look at minority politicians (I am looking at caste based politics) it seems they have gone the other way. If you take Ambedkar as the first symbolic and very credible representative and compare that to the politicians such as Mayawati etc then you have to agree that quality has suffered while quantity has increased.

      Ambedkar was a product of the British Raj, while Mayawati is a product of Indian independence. Does this tell you something about our Indian society?

    13. Shamit — on 3rd February, 2009 at 7:32 pm  

      On the other hand Ravi — think about the Sikh community. If you consider them a minority (which I do not and very few people in India do because Sikhs have been instrumental in creation, defense and economic success of modern India)then Dr. Manmohan Singh as PM tells a very different tale than that of the Dalit leadership.

    14. Ravi Naik — on 4th February, 2009 at 1:23 pm  

      Shamit, the social stigma and marginalisation of Dalits has no equal in Indian society. It is one of the most revolting aspects of Indian society.

    15. Jai — on 4th February, 2009 at 1:37 pm  

      you consider them a minority (which I do not and very few people in India do

      Shamit, that’s also because huge numbers of people in India actually view Sikhs as belonging to a turbaned/bearded Punjabi branch of Hinduism, not members of a separate religion.

      And for various other reasons, also because they’re not viewed as a downtrodden “backward”/underprivileged/disenfranchised group like Dalits, people from Scheduled Castes etc either.



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