Inequality in America

Whenever I see people passionately insist that women and minorities are “not second class citizens” in America – that they all have the same rights and representation as white males – so there is no longer any need to march in support of their rights and equality, I find that baffling. I don’t mean that hyperbolically either, I am genuinely confused as to how they crunch the numbers and come up with equality. (Obviously, I am assuming here that there is a quantifiable basis to their claim that can be verified and they aren’t just spouting nonsense).

America (like every country ever) is split pretty evenly between men and women: 51% women, 49% men. Demographically, we are 61% white and 39% non-white. Mathematically – if all other conditions are equal – that means that, on average, women should end up being elected to office 51% of the time and men 49% of the time; whites 61% of the time and non-whites 39% of the time (excluding any deliberate overcompensation for the sake of correcting historic inequalities). Those results could vary by a few percentage points in any given year, but, mathematically, if gender and ethnicity were not driving factors in and of themselves and other conditions were equal, then the diversity of the government would inevitably reflect the diversity of the country as a whole. That mathematical certainty has nothing to do with whether any particular male or female candidate is more or less qualified than his/her opponent (or the same for race): those factors affect only individual cases, not the laws of probability. In the big picture, basic math dictates that, if equality exists, it will show itself in the numbers, and if it doesn’t, the numbers will show that too. So what do the numbers show?

44/45 (98%) of Presidents have been white males. The one who wasn’t, obviously, was Democratic Presdent Barak Obama.

48/48 (100%) of Vice presidents have been white males.

114/115 (99%) Presidents Pro Tempore of the Senate have been white males. Democratic Senator Dan Inouye was an Asian American and held the position.

54/54 (100%) of Senate Party Leaders and Party Whips have been white males.

53/54 (98%) Speakers of the House have been white males. Democrat Nancy Pelosi is a white woman and held the position.

65/68 (96%) House Party Leaders and Party whips have been white males. Democrat Nancy Pelosi (white woman) held both positions (so 1/68 or 1% have been women) and Democrats William Gray and Jim Clyburn (both African American males) were both whips (so 2/68 or 3%).

11,421/12,041 (96%) of all people to ever serve in the US Congress have been white males. The chart below shows the breakdown.


The only thing more telling than the numbers above is the fact that those pitiful results are the result of an intense progressive struggle for equality within the last 100 years (before which the results were far worse).

But surely, some people will argue, all this historical data simply shows a historic problem, not a modern one. Didn’t “we” (“we” here meaning white males holding political power) give everyone else the vote eventually? Haven’t we spent the last 50 years rectifying this problem? Look at all the women and minorities in Congress now (and we even had that one African American president!). Shouldn’t we stop dwelling on the past and move on? Shouldn’t we focus on where we are, not the mistakes of the past?

The problem with this line of argument is that the past is still with us, influencing the present. A stroke of the pen can confer legal equality, but the practical realization of equality requires a transformation of social and cultural priorities and perspectives that have been trained into us by experience for centuries (and those can carry on for many generations beyond legal change). Of course, the last 100 years have seen some improvement and the composition of our ‘representative’ government has been getting more diverse and moving closer to reflecting the actual demographics of the country. The bad news is that the ‘progress’ we are talking about remains marginal and real equality remains far out of reach. Largely because so many people are willing to accept decades-old legal changes that happened on paper as having fixed everything, ignoring altogether the social and cultural change that has come much more slowly, if at all. After 100 years of progressive struggle, the current Congress (the 115th) is the most diverse in American history. But this is what that actually means:


Those numbers still show ridiculous inequality; and this isn’t an off year in an otherwise exemplary picture of equality, this is the best it has ever been. (This is part of the reason the US is ranked 28th in the world for gender equality – behind countries like Latvia, South Africa, Nicaragua and Rwanda). The very real problem that leads so many Americans to continue to protest and march in support of equality is that 100 years of ‘progress’ has only paid off in marginal ways, and most of that touted ‘progress’ has only shown discernible results in the last ten years. It was only the last decade that saw the first ever minority President, the first non-white-males in House leadership, and the first woman ever nominated for president by a major party. Of all the non-white-male Senators and Representatives who have ever been elected to our Congress (all the women, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic/Latinos), one third of them are serving right now; and yet, non-whites are still underrepresented by 100% and women are still under-represented by over 150%! White males still hold 67% of the seats in Congress, which means they remain over-represented by more than 100%! So, while progress has certainly be made in the last 100 years, it remains the case that enormous inequality continues to exist.

As already noted above, this discrepancy in the numbers cannot be explained by any appeal to the qualifications of individual candidates. A particular white male candidate may be more qualified than a woman candidate, or an African American candidate, opposing him; but if the opposite does not turn out to be true in other cases, if the overall numbers do not even out to women and minority candidates holding positions in roughly the same proportion as their proportion of society, then that means that there is something in the criteria of “qualification” we are employing that is tipping the scales. There is some factor (or set of factors) within our culture that is functionally leading us to identify white males – because they are white males – as “more qualified” to fill those positions. And that shouldn’t be surprising. The cultural idea, ingrained through centuries (and millennia) of promotion (and misogyny), that women belong in the household, following male leadership rather than leading, did not disappear when males decided to give them a vote; and neither did centuries of European-American domination and exploitation of minorities – founded on ingrained cultural notions of the inferiority of non-whites. Those ideas have been a part of our culture for far, far longer than any movement against them, and those ideas continue to be reinforced within our culture, both explicitly (by a great many voices) and implicitly (through our acceptance of a reality that models them). When we look back on our history, nearly all of the Congresspeople, Vice Presidents, Presidents and party leaders we see are white males, and every time we pay attention to politics throughout our lives, we are predominantly seeing white, male politicians.

The default position within society is always for culturally ingrained notions to remain the same, they do not change simply because time passes. When we choose not to prioritize equality within our politics, then we continue to default to inequality. Within our society, the numbers do not add up to equality because, as a nation, we have never fully bought into the idea of equality; rather, we have continued to nourish the old cultural ideas: whether through active promotion or passive default.

Now, obviously, the inequality represented by the data above cannot be laid at the feet of any one political party. Both are seriously implicated. It is an American problem, and not one politicians themselves can solve for us. We the people elect those people to office; their demographic make-up is on us and reflects our social and cultural biases. Nevertheless, it would be extremely dishonest to pretend that all political parties are failing to an equal degree in this problem. One of our political parties has made substantial progress on this issue (though still falling short) and the other has made far less progress. The chart below shows how each party has historically done (note, the percentages reflect a percentage of Congresspeople by party: e.g. 32 women elected as Democratic Senators out of a total of 829 Democratic Senators in history).


If you leave history behind and focus on the present, the Republican showing is only marginally better.


The current Republican levels of white male representation and representation for everyone not a white male have only shifted by 8 points from historic levels, leaving them 56 points off from where they should be. Meanwhile, the Democratic numbers in these same areas, while hardly shining, have at least managed to shift from historic levels by 47 points, leaving them 17 points away from where they should be. And in both case, those divergences are from each party’s own historic levels, not the overall levels (where the discrepancy would be more distinct). We are all failing at this, but Republicans don’t even seem to be trying.

Now, some people will undoubtedly argue that their party should only be as diverse as its own voters, rather than as diverse as the country. This is a horrible argument for several reasons. First, this argument assumes each representative is responsible to represent only the people that voted for him/her and not all the people in her/his district. That isn’t how the system works (at least, it isn’t how it is supposed to work). To make that the goal is to reject the ideal of a government that represents all the people and instead view the government simply as the majority ruling over all minorities. Second, those making this argument assume zero responsibility for why certain groups feel so un-represented by a particular party. Maybe the reason so many members of a particular group don’t vote for a particular party has more to do with problems in the party than problems with whole racial groups (e.g. maybe African Americans didn’t support the States Rights Party in the 40’s because it was a racist party built on segregation, not because there was something generally deficient about African Americans). To argue that the fault lies with the race-group itself is the very definition of racism. Finally, this argument is deficient because it begins by asking “what is the absolute minimum number of X-people (whether women or minority groups) we can justify including in our party in order to call ourselves sufficiently diverse,” then makes that lowest of standards the goal it strives to achieve. It is exactly this attitude of dragging our feet and doing as little politically for equality as we can get away with that has promoted inequality for centuries. Every party should strive to represent all people, and, accordingly, should strive for equality of representation that mirrors the diversity of the people themselves.

Even if the “we only have to be as diverse as the people who vote for us” argument were acceptable, the Republican Party fails even to meet this very low bar of “equality.” The total population of Congress is 535 people. Since 51% of the US population is women, 51% of Congress should be to, which means there should be at least 273 women in Congress. Since 41% of women voted Republican in the last election, Republicans should be seating 41% of those 273 women, so there should be 112 Republican women in Congress (to match the low level of diversity in the party). There are currently 26 Republican women in Congress. Republicans would need more than four times as many women (330% more than it now has) just to meet this ridiculously low bar for “equality.” And they would need twice as many African American members (100% more), over twice as many Hispanic/Latino members (107% more), and the current number of Asian Americans is so low multiplication doesn’t even work to get to where they should be. Even by the lowest, most ridiculous standard of equality, Republicans are failing catastrophically.

And that is at the pinnacle of achievement in equality within the Republican Party (except for African Americans, for whom the pinnacle of equality in the Republican Party came during the 30 years following Emancipation, and who have never since known a comparable level of inclusion in the Republican Party, even when African Americans still all voted Republican). And yet, the constant refrain of the Republican Party is about color-blindness, Democrats promoting racial division, and how pro-equality and diverse they are (because “we freed the slaves,” MLK Jr. may have been – but probably wasn’t – a Republican in the 50’s, there were those two times we considered nominating a minority for President, and Tim Scott). When MLK Jr. dreamed of a future society where the color of people’s skin wouldn’t matter, he didn’t mean a future where real inequality was still thriving but people went around saying “the color of someone’s skin doesn’t matter.” It was not a line meant to reinforce the inequality of the status quo. His vision was of a society that had so thoroughly overcome longstanding cultural biases, so thoroughly healed the damage done by centuries of discrimination, that genuine equality could be taken for granted. His vision was of the type of society where the math would all work out perfectly without the need for audits and corrections. Obviously, we aren’t there. Right now, the math just doesn’t add up to equality in America.


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