Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Are we being well represented? How should I know?

Other than voting records, what are our gauges/measures for good representation?

Members of Congress, State Legislatures, City Councils & School Boards are representatives. They're charged with representing their constituency's needs/wishes.

Should they also be representative of their constituency in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, political leanings, age, education, income, etc.?

Can someone who is different from us in all or many of the above represent us well?

Should we figure we're being well represented if legislative bodies resemble the population percentage-wise?

According to the 2000 census, 52% of Pittsburgh's population is female, 27% is black. Our 9 member city council has two female members and two black members. Our 9 member school board has three black members and four female members. Of W PA's 44 state reps, three are white women and two are African American men and, I believe, John Pippy, is Asian American.

Should we figure we're being well represented if the turnover of legislators is diverse?

Say one state rep district is held by a young, Republican African American woman for three terms, followed by a sixty-something Jewish man who's an Independent for two terms, then a middle aged, gay female Democrat for three terms, does that provide district residents with good representation?

Most elected officials in this region are white men.

On the one hand I'd like to think that, whether or not a representative is physically, politically, etc., like me, s/he can serve me as a good rep.

On the other hand, having often been the only woman in a room full of white men, I know that the majority, (regardless of who the majority is), will not ask the same questions as people outside of the majority's group would. And, as turnover is so minimal, things tend to stay the same for a very long time.

So what's the equation for figuring out if we've got good representation? Does race trump gender? Does religion trump political party or age?

Am I asking the wrong questions? Do you have some of your own?


  1. I certainly don't think you're asking the wrong questions. They seem very much at issue in a number of areas, not least of which the Democratic contest for president. The "does race trump gender" question, for example, has come up during the New Hampshire primary, with Gloria Steinem writing in the New York Times about Hilary Clinton's travails, and comparing the hardships of female vs. black candidates. That prompted some "your blues aren't like mine" responses, if memory serves. That debate seems like sort of a zero-sum game to me, but I can see why it happens.

    I'd also add that part of my interest in this stuff stems from a book I'm reading, "The Trouble With Diversity." The author's argument isn't against diversity, of course: It's that on both the left and the right, it's much easier to talk about the politics of inclusion than it is to talk about the politics of class. And that class is what we need to talk about most.

    To take just one example, the epitaph for Hurricane Katrina in a lot of people's minds is "George Bush doesn't care about black people." The author suggests that this isn't true -- that there are black people George Bush DOES care about. Like our Secretary of State. A more accurate assessment, the author says, would be that George Bush doesn't care about POOR people.

    To the extent that black people are disproportionately likely to be poor in this country, this may seem a distinction without a difference. But I think if you sort of tug at the implications, some things start unraveling. The most greedy, rapacious corporations in the world have have also been among the first to promulgate non-discrimination policies, diversity training, etc.

    Ideally, one wouldn't have to make a choice between fighting for inclusion and fighting against economic injustice. Ideally, one could be a progressive in both the old sense -- of fighting against the power of unfettered capitalism -- and in the newer sense, of being pro-reform and in favor of diversity and tolerance. (After all, the old model of progressivism was far from perfect -- too often it was associated with racist underpinnings.)

    But we're obviously not in an ideal situation. We weren't in those 2006 races that RBR was involved in, and we're not in the current Presidential race.

    My own preference in such situations is USUALLY to emphasize a person's political platform rather than their identity. If Pennsylvanians were going to have a choice among the Democratic field, for example, my heart would probably be with Edwards, primarily because of a solid healthcare plan, strong support of unions, and a willingness to raise questions about corporate influence.

    But I'm excited about all the front-runners, and I'm also aware of the fact that by backing Edwards, I am perpetuating a trend in which we white guys stick together. I will maintain that my support has nothing to do with that, but others of course may see it differently.

    -- potter

  2. you make some good points.
    i still haven't made up my mind.

    i hope i would 1st. vote on qualities and issues and then...

    i can say that i am pleased that it seems that i will have the chance to vote for either a woman or an african american for president tho i do like edwards and i liked richardson.

  3. "It's that on both the left and the right, it's much easier to talk about the politics of inclusion than it is to talk about the politics of class. And that class is what we need to talk about most."

    Amen to that. The Hill thread on PittGirl just ended in a convincing anonymous comment from a poor white woman saying look guys, I'm really poor, stop going overboard on racism. And it's like geez, you guys (she was responding to Dr. G) should be connecting over CLASS.

    As to Are you being represented? I'm starting to think that representation is something you secure for yourselves, by wringing it out the officeholders.

    If you think someone just like you will represent you if you send them to office and pat them on the back, you'll never get any representation. Send The Man to office and work him over, you'll be well represented indeed.