The Representation Problem Facing America

Why Our Representatives Don’t Represent the American Population, and What We Can Do to Change That.

The US government is facing a representation problem, or more accurately, is still facing a representation problem. By this I mean that the issues which often feel as though they are said and done — gender, racial, and even sexual equality — are far from being brought to fruition in the ways they are meant to.

Within today’s congress, women are one of the most underrepresented groups despite having had some number of female representatives for over a century now. They make up only about a quarter of the current congress, despite being more than half of the general population. The Hispanic population makes up 18% of the population, but only about 8.6% of congress are Latinx. 

The trend continues: 11% of congress is black compared to more than 13% of the population. Asian Americans are almost 6% of the population, but have only a 3.2% representation in congress. There are eleven LGBT members of congress, amounting to about 2%, despite even conservative estimates saying that more than double that identify as LGBT (estimates of the LGBT population notoriously have a difficult time quantifying closeted individuals). 1.1% of the country is Muslim, despite only 0.6% of congress being so.

Regardless of political stature, the virtue of a democracy is that every voice is heard. In an ideal world, this would ultimately result in every subgroup or minority having a proportional representation in congress (for example, there being 51 female senators, rather than 24), but that clearly isn’t happening. This ideal sort of democracy is the entire thing we should strive for not just as a political aim, but because it is morally right. 

How It Happens

There are plenty of factors that go into reinforcing a straight white male supermajority. Some of them are historical, and will (in theory) slowly wear off as time goes on. Others are based in subconscious bias that says, for example, that because we have always had men as presidents, they are somehow a more reliable or secure choice (clearly a fallacy in itself).

The more manageable issue, though is the electoral one. The structure of our democratic republic is set up so that each congressman represents about 700,000 people, with each senator of course representing their entire state which vary widely in population. With our vote, we have influence only over the house races in the district we live in — no other. 

The issue with this is when minority groups don’t make up a majority within that population. Hispanic people may make up 18% of the population, but if 90% of the Hispanic population lives within fifty house districts, those Hispanic people will never have the power in numbers to elect the 18% they might deserve. LGBT people might make up around 5% of the population, but that is spread out as roughly the same proportion nationwide, meaning they will always have a minority in every single race. 

New York’s 14th district

This means that the districts where minorities are more likely to win tend to be those districts that feel represented by the minority. Consider New York’s 14th district, which is made up three quarters by non-white people. A group like that feels highly represented by someone like Hispanic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. From a purely demographic standpoint, she is less likely to win even an equally democrat district that is majority white. 

Women are the only group here that have basically the same cut of the population nationwide, but they’re the whole reason a quarter of congress is female in the first place. Women vote at a rate of roughly 4% higher than men, meaning they show up at the polls, but that doesn’t mean they always have a woman to vote for in the first place. Some reports have shown that 70% of congressional races do not include a woman in the race, with only 2% of districts having more than one woman in the election.

The Problems

One of the main problems upfront is that women and minorities tend to vote for Democrats, and they tend to run as Democrats. What this means in effect is that districts where Democrats don’t win, they are more often represented by white men. 

For example, women who run as Democrats tend to win their primary elections, and even tend to win general elections more often than women who run as Republicans, but they also usually win those elections in places that already leaned left to begin with. 

It should be made clear that this isn’t to say Republican women don’t win elections — in many cases they most certainly do. In fact, 2020 was heralded as “The Year of the Republican Woman” by many as the amount of congressional Republican women more than doubled, going from 13 to 28 in a single election. In some cases, as was the instance for Stephanie Bice in Oklahoma’s 5th district, Republican women even beat their female Democratic opponent. 

Regardless of political party, though, there are social obstacles too. According to polling from 2019, 94% of Americans would vote for a woman for president, with only three-quarters of Americans saying they would vote for a gay/lesbian person for president, and only two-thirds saying they would vote for a Muslim person for president. Obviously the role of president and the role of a member of congress are vastly different, but this just proves the theory that people will choose to not vote for someone based on a single characteristic of that person that has no real-world impact on their ability to govern. 

The Solutions

Though updating voting rights is a crucial part of solving much of this problem (e.g., making sure black people really have 13% of the vote), it isn’t a long term fix for anything, and it doesn’t even really solve the initial problem as much as it just makes the solution a little clearer.

There are two parts of the solution to this problem that we can actively partake in. 

The first part of the solution is a messaging one: we have to promote the idea that everyone has an equal capacity to govern. Even after significant progress has been made in the realm of civil rights since the original signing of the constitution, stigmas surrounding minorities and women persist that don’t actually prove to be true.

We have to get on board with the idea that just because a lesbian woman might not represent you in identity, that doesn’t reduce their ability to argue for the things you believe in. We might disagree on the details of legal abortion, but we have to tear down the idea that women generally support abortion more than men do (because they don’t). We have to take a broad look at the reasons people might find some candidates unfit for office due to their identity, and ask if that actually has any bearing on their ability to represent you, because it almost always doesn’t. 

The second part of the solution is taking an active role in supporting those campaigns for minorities and women that are qualified for their jobs. This doesn’t just mean voting for a representative in your district that represents a minority — in fact, that kind of identity politics isn’t helpful for anyone in the end. 

What it really means, rather, is putting money and volunteer time towards candidates who are truly qualified to represent their district, but might not have the demographic math on their side. A middle-eastern woman in Iowa can be completely and entirely qualified for her job in the US House of Representatives, so we have to make sure that we help her win that race with the full knowledge that it’s an uphill battle for her. 

(A side note on money in politics: There is often an icky feeling that is related to the often sickening amounts of money put into politics in the US. While in many ways this is certainly valid, donating to campaigns outside of your district is a different form of democracy protected under the first amendment. Your vote is one way to make a difference in your district, but your time and money is how you can make a difference outside of it.)

Congresswoman Stephanie Bice

This also takes the role of working to have those minority candidates on both sides of the ticket. Returning to the example of Stephanie Bice in Oklahoma, she went counter to the probabilities afforded to her. She’s an Iranian-American, Republican woman — from a demographic standpoint, she isn’t likely to win in Oklahoma. Yet after six years in the state legislature she is entirely qualified for the role that she ultimately won as a US Representative.

The point is that often times minorities don’t win races because they aren’t supported on all sides, not because they have some inherent aptitude for loss or because they aren’t qualified. Both sides of the ticket have a responsibility to find and run qualified minority candidates in an effort to even the scales that have been tipped in favor of the white man since the founding of the country. 

What We Can Do

The first thing we can do is to make sure we are actively paying attention to our own individual language, our own messaging per se, and verifying that we aren’t contributing to stereotypes that reduce chances for women and minorities. Additionally, correcting others when you hear them contributing to those stereotypes is important to making sure people realize their own subconscious biases. Almost no one actually wants to be racist, sexist, or xenophobic in any way; they just don’t often realize that’s what they’re doing when they make comments they probably shouldn’t make.

As cliché as it might sound, getting involved is the other major thing we can all do. We can’t all do everything or help everyone, but finding a single candidate that you really like as a candidate and who represents an under represented minority group — even if that candidate is out of your district or even out of your state — and donating your time and money to ensuring they get into office is a huge deal. You don’t have to sacrifice your beliefs to help someone who deserves a job they’re running for, you just have to be willing to find that person. 

Underrepresentation is a problem, but what is even more problematic are entire swaths of the country being represented by people that don’t relate to their lived experiences. The perfect world that has demographics being represented in congress to the percentage point might never come, but we can each do our part in making sure that the moral arc of history bends towards that justice.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life in Black and White, and a Life in Color

I, as many probably did as well this year, spent my Martin Luther King day listening to and reading works of his (namely his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”). In this, something that caught my attention was the theory that photos of Dr. King himself, that had been taken in color originally, have over the years been intentionally produced in black in white rather than color. The belief is that this has happened because of an ill intention to put space between our time and his time, to make it seem as though all racial inequality has been banished, and his legacy completely and entirely fulfilled.

These two photos were taken on the same day at the March on Washington in 1963

Now, the reality of these photos isn’t quite as exciting of a story as it may sound. Color photography did exist in the 1960’s, but it was expensive and time consuming. Because the vast majority of photographers were employed by newspapers, and because newspapers were interested in both saving money and having quick turnaround times, the vast majority of photographs were taken and printed in black and white, rather than in color.

But, there is some merit behind the idea that maybe the question is deeper than a simple historical explanation. Why is it that even the most economically sound newspapers of today still choose to publish photos of him in black and white rather than in color? I find myself without a good enough answer.

Another thing that surfaced in the research I did on Monday about Dr. King was the reality of the depth of his beliefs, specifically that some of them were more callous than much of what we have chosen to remember about him.

For example, this is an excerpt from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” many of us have heard or read on some MLK day either this year or in the past:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And here is another excerpt from the same written work of his that is far less discussed:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride for freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, there’s certainly a reason we hear one of these more often than the other. Dr. King is largely a figure of love, of kindness, of equality and of justice. The first quote proves these things we ask Dr. King to represent; the second, not so much. One could even argue that giving the second quote a bigger platform than the first reduces Dr. King’s influence, because it presents him in a light of cynicism, not hope, that it has the potential to offend, instead of inspire.

On the other hand, the second quote is very real, and we can all understand that intuitively. The Overton window certainly seems to be the limiting factor in social politics, and it is behind this middle ground that legislation always follows. You can’t move the law without moving the middle ground, and thus Dr. King makes his point that the white moderate – that person sitting in the middle, rather than one one side or the other – is the person who has more power in the end.

I think it is often that a minority of us get caught up in trying to remember the details of a certain legacy to defy its cliché. In the past day, I’ve seen many bring up Dr. King’s beliefs against capitalism, for certain kinds of law breaking, and generally his disapproval with the American system. All of these things are certainly facts of his belief system, and things he held on to throughout his life.

However, the problem I think often comes when we choose to see one set of these things over the other. Dr. King most certainly believed that love was the only thing that could drive out hate, and he also believed that the laws of man were allowed to be broken sometimes. He said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and he also said that the white moderate (and not the Ku Klux Klan) is the biggest hurdle in the fight for true equality. He had his photos taken in black and white, and he had his photos taken in color. These things can exist together; they are not exclusive.

There are pieces of Dr. King’s legacy that history has tried to wash away in the barely fifty years since his death, and we certainly must remember those pieces in spite of efforts to erase them. However, those pieces fit into the broader themes of his life, and it is his whole legacy, not our biased view of it, that is worth remembering.

The photos of Dr. King can be black and white. These are still photographs that still tell a whole truth, and there isn’t an inherent harm in having black and white photos. There was no ill intention in taking them in such a way, and there is no danger in viewing them that way now.

But there too are photos of him in color, where the lines on the Reverend King’s face are filled in and the crowd seems like more than a sea of faceless people. They don’t tell a different story, but rather a more full one, one where the gaps are closed and the margins are narrowed, and the story is told with just a little more context.

There is room to remember both versions of Dr. King. We can surely remember the black and white outlines of what he lived for as we go about our day to day life, remembering to value equality and love over suppression and hate. But we also have the capacity to remember him in color, remembering the more nuanced and occasionally less comfortable things he stood for.

In retelling his story, the responsibility falls on each of us to choose whether we will tell it in black and white, or in color. We can choose to preach only the big themes, of which there is no fault. Or, we can dare to preach like he did, in boisterous color that might just get us into some good trouble.

If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.