Feature 10.06.2021 6 minutes

Reclaiming Representation

Multi-Cultural Society

What’s called diversity more often means demographic engineering.

In an excerpt from his speech, “Winning the Cold Civil War,” Claremont Board Chairman Thomas D. Klingenstein expertly describes the institutional collusion that imposes a radical Left paradigm on American society at large. Further, he clarifies how matters of identity—race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—are used as wedge issues to create public discord, which undermines any unified effort by the American people to resist the new ideological order.

One observation calls for some elaboration: In discussing how the Left has replaced America’s historical aspiration toward equality of opportunity with a new insistence on equality of outcome, Klingenstein explains that the “outcome equality” sought by woke ideologues means that “all identity groups” will be “proportionately represented in all aspects of American life.” To achieve such a goal, a society would have to be guided by a very different set of principles than those that defined our nation’s history. Thus, ensuring this proportional representation would require that we abandon the traditional notion of American liberty.

That would be bad. Unfortunately, though, the reality of what is unfolding as the Left attempts to achieve “outcome equality” is even worse than Klingenstein’s characterization. The aspiration he is describing—that blacks (13% of the population) should represent 13% of every institution, outcome, or opportunity—was the Left’s aspiration in the 1980s and ’90s.

During that time, Democrats often fixated on representation in media and government: they demanded that these entities should “look like America.” At that time, the television did not seem to depict an America as diverse as it really was. In politics and the white-collar professions, white men were statistically over-represented, evidence that the historical privileges accorded to majority groups endured, even after the sweeping victories of the civil rights movement. It was possible, without relaxing the standards of meritocracy or the norms of representative government, to acknowledge that America was more diverse in real life than it looked on TV.

It was in the late 1980s that meaningful efforts to achieve a more proportional demographic representation in America began in earnest. On television, shows like Murphy Brown, The Cosby Show, and Family Matters were added to the network schedule. Earlier programming that featured blacks and women had typically emphasized the marginal status of their characters within the broader culture. But these newer shows took pains to emphasize that the characters were typical, representative Americans. Only a few years later, LGBT characters were portrayed the same way in films like Philadelphia or The Crying Game.

This effort to be more inclusive was not limited to corporate media. Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. Jesse Jackson delivered a high-profile speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. In 1988, he would run for president (again). Everyday Americans demonstrated a new willingness to elect candidates who did not embody the white male norm. In 1991, the illustrious Maxine Waters won her congressional seat. Four women, including the first black woman, were elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, widely dubbed the “Year of the Woman.” A fifth followed in the next year’s special election. Hillary Clinton broke the mold of previous First Ladies and became an active participant in policy-making.

The cultural changes of the ’80s and ’90s were welcome ones: they were progress in the basic sense of the word. The increased presence of minorities in public life was evidence that America was not only rhetorically committed to its promise of equality of opportunity: we were bringing that promise into reality.

After 2000, though, things began to change. Slowly, but surely, it was less about an accurate representation of demographic groups according to their presence in the general population, and more about equality pure and simple. Whereas in the decades prior it was said that a group that makes up 13% of the population should make up 13% of various statistics and institutions, a new demand arose.

Roughly speaking, there are 5 major racial categories in the U.S.: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and “other.” Under the new paradigm, each of those groups should represent a 20% of any given metric—regardless of their share of the general population. If there are two marital statuses (married and unmarried), each category should represent 50% of a given metric—regardless of their share of the general population. Does anyone believe that if only 67% of Congress was comprised of white people that the Left wouldn’t still be clamoring for more diversity?

Watching a few hours of any primetime network television line-up will provide ample evidence of this phenomenon. For example, the cast of a program will rarely be made up of 65% white people, 15% Hispanics, 13% black people, and a smaller share of Asians and other groups (reflecting the approximate reality of U.S. demographics). Instead, a show with 10 major characters will have roughly equal numbers of men and women, but one character will be white, one black, one Hispanic, one member of the LGBT community, one Asian, one Muslim, etc. A careful study of network television commercials will yield an even more pronounced finding: for example, whites are wildly underrepresented as the main characters in commercials relative to their share of the general population.

Thus, the last 20 years exemplifies a shift from seeking proportional representation toward an effort to achieve equal representation—regardless of whether that representation correlates with the factual realities of American demography. At bottom, this shift constitutes a break with reality. Or, more properly, an attempt to engineer a certain perception of reality—a perception which, although it does not conform to existing reality, represents a higher, aspirational reality.

In the current context, then, the representation of diversity isn’t really a “representation” at all. Rather, it is a moral imaginary: a kind of dreaming about what a “better” America would look like. Why is it “better”? Because in the fantasy world of leftist politics, minority status is synonymous with experiencing injustice. In short, the crime isn’t underrepresentation of a minority group—it is the existence of any group as a minority. Therefore, true “social justice” would demand that there is no minority: only a uniform diversity comprised of precisely equal shares of every identity category you can imagine.

The result of all this isn’t something that “looks more like America.” It is something that “looks more like Manhattan.” Or Los Angeles. The problem here is that most of America doesn’t resemble the demography of Manhattan or Los Angeles. And therein lies a contradiction: despite all of the pains taken by the Left to honor diversity, they cannot honor the diversity embodied by communities like Rochester, NY, or Duluth, MN, or Santa Fe, NM, or Boise, ID. American communities, it seems, can’t look different from one another. In the “ideal” America, the composition of Lincoln, NE would be no different than the make-up of Manhattan in miniature.

And yet, this commitment to equal representation waxes and wanes on the Left. Representational outcomes that “look like America Manhattan” only matter when they are conducive to the ideological commitments of the Left. Therefore, Christians will be deliberately underrepresented in television programming, to the point where America’s most prevalent religion is erased almost entirely. People with disabilities also don’t seem to require a 50% representation: it’s vanishingly rare, for example, to see a character with Down’s Syndrome.

The reason for these exclusions is clear: in the ideal America of leftist Manhattanite dreams, there simply wouldn’t be any Christians or people with Down’s Syndrome. Other contradictions in the Left’s commitment to representational equality abound. The National Hockey League takes pains to showcase its non-white players and maintains initiatives to increase interest in hockey among those populations. But no one—neither league officials nor fans—is demanding that the National Basketball League decrease the number of black players on their rosters to ensure that the teams look “more like America.” And there is no league “initiative” to spark interest in basketball among young, rural whites. Again, the reasons for this are obvious. A very similar state of affairs obtains in America’s colleges and universities.

It is critical to understand that in the span of a few decades, the institutional elite shifted from a desire to accurately represent American diversity to an effort to engineer a misperception of American demography. The new paradigm is an attempt to ensure that if America must still have groups that exist as minorities, at least Americans might be made to believe that this isn’t the case. If Americans can be persuaded that the aspirational vision of America (the one that looks like Manhattan) is the reality, then they will act in accord with that perception, which will inevitably make America more like Manhattan. And, of course, that is the goal.

But none of this can be stated openly by the managers of this project. They still speak in the language of 1988, insisting that they merely want to ensure that outcomes “look like America”—an objective which (in the context of 1988) was a very good thing. Nevertheless, the America they are “representing” today is one that doesn’t exist. And this warrants great suspicion regarding the whole “representational” enterprise in 2021. If these ideologues are fine with the overrepresentation of minority groups in some milieux (as is the case in the NBA and elsewhere), one is left to wonder: will other historically privileged populations meet the representational fate of groups like Christians and conservatives, who—because they would not exist in the imagined just society—are erased right out of existence? If what Klingenstein calls the woke Communist agenda continues to advance unchecked, we may find out.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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