Power of Representation
Updated: Oct 17
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By: Jordan Schmitt, Editor in Chief
As society grows more representational of minoritized groups, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds, so does its governmental system. The U.S. is currently witnessing an increased amount of people from marginalized communities transitioning to positions of power.
According to the Pew Research Center, the 117th Congress is the most diverse so far, with about 23% of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate members composed of racial and ethnic minorities. Non-white lawmakers are increasing, but there is still a need for more diverse voices in government. It is essential for officials to look, think, talk and act like the citizens that they represent in order for a democracy to truly be “for the people.”
The lack of political representation seeps into systemic inequality, which is unfortunately built into every corner of American society. Systemic inequality describes the structured biases that permeate all societal systems, institutions and governments that cause marginalized groups to face unfair disadvantages.
Due to the United States’ history of slavery and oppression, systemic inequality is still embedded in modern-day culture, and as a result, disproportionately affects Black Americans.
As more instances of brutality and oppression toward the Black community are documented, racial issues in America are becoming increasingly recognized. Although this has been the reality for African Americans for much of history, advancements in technology and social media allow for such events to be recorded, and therefore, gain awareness in seconds. In the summer of 2020, protests in response to the murders of Black Americans, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor flooded the nation’s smallest towns and largest cities.
Through advanced rhetoric surrounding structural oppression in U.S. institutions, more attention has been placed on the elected officials who acknowledge systemic inequality.
Political-heavy issues such as health care, education, minimum wage, immigration, police violence, and criminal justice reform all contribute to further oppression of minorities. By electing more individuals who have firsthand experience of how these issues disproportionately affect specific communities, progress is more often made toward reform.
Jamaal Bowman, a Black middle-school principal from New York, was recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for New York’s 16th Congressional District. His district covers much of the Bronx and Westchester County.
In response to his Nov. 3, 2020 victory over long-term Republican incumbent Patrick McManus, Bowman tweeted: “I’m a Black man raised by a single mother in a housing project. That story doesn’t usually end in Congress.” Bowman was also recently appointed to Vice Chair of the House Committee of Education and Labor.
There is also an increased need for the opinions of Hispanic individuals in legislature. For example, the Latino population makes up 10% of Nebraska’s population, yet, there is not a single Hispanic lawmaker in the Nebraskan legislature. From a national perspective, about 19% of the U.S. population is Hispanic, but only 9% of the House of Representatives’ population represents Hispanic members.
Linda Trautman is an associate professor of political science at Ohio University. Teaching at the university since 2005, Trautman specializes in state and national legislative politics, electoral participation and voting behavior, and urban governance and American public policy.
“Efforts to increase minority representation is of paramount importance in order to fulfill the vision of an inclusive democracy and to reduce inequities in society. A lack of minority representation impedes the advocacy of “policy interests” of underrepresented groups. Diverse perspectives are essential to enrich political, social and cultural dialogues that often ignore the realities of minorities,” Trautman said.
Gender also comes into play for lack of equal representation and intersects with race in politics. It is no surprise that U.S. politics has been a “boy’s club,” specifically white males, since the country’s founding. America has recently witnessed the historic election of Kamala Harris, as the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history and the first African American and Asian American vice president.
However, disparity remains when it comes to women in politics, but this is a significant step for women of color. It was not until 1993, that a Black woman was elected to Senate, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. Vice President Harris was only second to Moseley Braun as an African American woman in the Senate.
“I’ve always maintained that Black people and women suffer from a presumption of incompetence. The burdens of proof are different. It just gets so tiresome,” Moseley Braun said.
It has been shown that the two-party system highly favorites incumbents, which are typically positions held by men. Therefore, women are generally more likely to be elected to Congress in open-seat elections. American women have also voted higher on average than men for the past four decades – which debunks the myth that men are more politically aware than their female counterparts.
Things are gradually improving. In 2019, the Nevada legislature was constituted by a majority of women, which was the first time in U.S. history that women held the majority of any state legislature. The continued election of women is necessary to improve political equality among other minoritized populations.
There is also an increased need for political figures outside of heteronormative representation among gender identities and sexual orientations. The gender binary involves the system in which all people are classified within two opposing genders, and it is reinforced throughout society. Individuals with identities outside of the gender binary have frequently been neglected from the political landscape.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund is a political action committee that aims to increase the amount of openly LGBTQ individuals in U.S. politics. It is imperative for such organizations to support minorities who have received historical discrimination to join in representative positions. Sarah McBride won the Delaware State Senate race last November, and in doing so became the country’s highest-ranking transgender official and first openly transgender senator. On the night McBride was elected, she stated: “It is my hope that a young LGBTQ kids here in Delaware or really anywhere in this country can look at the results and know that our democracy is big enough for them, too.”
Although these instances of hope for our representative system are growing more comprehensive, there is still much work to be done. It is crucial that all individuals continue to become aware of the disparities within our government, and support minoritized individuals. We must continue holding policy-makers accountable for supporting the lives of of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, disabled persons, and other segments of the population who are the recipients of structural oppression. In doing so, the room for more representation within the political system can only expand.