Black Presidents and Women MPs Do Not Alone Mean Equality and Justice

During a recent playdate, one of my son's white four-year-old friends
looked up from Thomas the Tank Engine and pointed out the obvious.
"You're black," he told my son. As a parent, these have never felt like
particularly teachable moments. Toddlers have plenty of time ahead of
them to acquire anxieties, affiliations and attitudes about race. But
what they see primarily at their age is not race but difference - a fact
that need prompt neither denial nor panic, rebuke nor rectification,
unless some derogatory meaning is attached to that difference.

When
my son looks to me for a cue, my aim is not to interrogate or chide but
to acknowledge and deflect. In the past, I have said: "And what colour
are you?" or "And you are white". But this time new material came to
mind. "That's right," I told them both. "Just like the president."

This
was the long-presaged moment I had been warned to
prepare for. My son was born on the weekend that Barack Obama announced
his candidacy. Since then, people have been telling me that his
presidency would mean great things for my son. Indeed, this was one of
Obama's privately stated aims. When his wife Michelle asked what he
thought he could accomplish if he became president, he said: "The day I
take the oath of office, the world will look at us differently. And
millions of kids across this country will look at themselves
differently. That alone is something."

True, it is something. But
when Thomas is safely back in the station and the moment is over, it is
not very much. Because for all the white noise emanating from the Tea
Party movement, it has been black Americans who have suffered most since
Obama took office. Over the last 14 months the gap between my son's
life chances and his friend's have been widening. Unemployment, which
has held steady in the rest of the country, is still rising among
African Americans and stands at almost twice that of white people. For
black teens, unemployment is 43.8%. Meanwhile, foreclosures among
African Americans are increasing almost 50% faster than for whites. At
this rate, my son will certainly look at himself differently after
Obama's presidency - and not in a good way.

This could
legitimately be the starting point for an indictment of Obama's
presidency. Certainly if a Republican president were behind statistics
like this, few liberals would be offering him or her the benefit of the doubt. But like most
other criticisms of Obama, particularly regarding the economy, you would
have to make the case that another viable contender could have produced
better results in the same circumstances. He entered in a moment of
freefall. Calling on him to provide a softer landing or a parachute is
one thing. Demanding that he suspend the rules of gravity is another.

I
think that case could be made, but it is not the argument I'm making
here. The fact that the first black president is presiding over
deepening racial disparities is just one of the more potent
illustrations of how the relationship between identity and electoral
representation has become untethered from broader social, political or
economic advances and rendered purely symbolic. The corporate model of
diversity, which seeks to look different and act the same, has firmly
stamped its imprimatur on a kind of politics that owes more to Benetton ads than black advancement. Where we
used to seek equal opportunities, we have now become satisfied with
photo opportunities - a fact that satisfies some liberals, annoys most
conservatives and does little, if anything, for the lives of those whose
interests are ostensibly being championed.

"We have more black
people in more visible and powerful positions," Angela Davis told me before Obama won
the Democratic nomination. "But then we have far more black people who
have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder. When people call for
diversity and link it to justice and equality, that's fine. But there's a
model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the
change that brings about no change."

This is not just true for
race. India's upper house last week passed a bill to reserve a third of all
legislative seats for women. Given that India ranks 99th in the world
for female representation, this would make a significant difference to
the Indian parliament if it becomes law. The prime minister, Manmohan
Singh, described the vote as a "historic step forward toward
emancipation of Indian womanhood".

Not necessarily. There is no
absolute causal link between gender representation and gender equality.
Six of the countries that rank in the top 20 for women's representation are also in the
top 20 for per capita rapes. Meanwhile, a global
gender gap index, compiled by the World Economic Forum, which assesses
how countries distribute resources and opportunities between the sexes,
reveals glaring discrepancies. Angola and Nepal, which stand 10th and
17th respectively in terms of representation, are 106th and 110th
in terms of equality. Ireland and Sri Lanka, which rank eighth and 16th
respectively for equality are 87th and 125th for representation. In
2008, two female party leaders locked horns in elections in Bangladesh,
producing the second female prime minster for the country in a decade.
According to the WEF, gender inequality in Bangladesh is bad (it is
94th) and getting relatively worse (in 2008 it was 90th).

This
does not undermine the campaigns for more diverse political
representation but should sharpen the arguments that support them.
Representative democracies that exclude large sections of the population
are not worthy of the adjective. Nor should the power of symbolism be
underrated. Black Americans may have fared worst under Obama, but they
are also the most likely to approve of his presidency. A Pew survey released in January showed the
highest number of African Americans believing they are better off now
than they were five years ago - even though economically they are not.

Moreover,
in most cases difference does make a difference. While there may be no
black or female experience, evidence suggests that a critical mass of
certain groups can have an affect on outcomes. A 2008 study in the Columbia Law Review discovered: "When a
white judge sits on a panel with at least one African-American judge,
she becomes roughly 20 percentage points more likely to find" a voting
rights violation. A 2005 Yale Law Journal study revealed not only
that women judges were more likely to find for plaintiffs in sexual
harassment cases than men, but that the presence of female judges
increased the likelihood that men would find for the plaintiff too.

The
fact that five of the 10 countries with the highest female
representation are also in the top 10 for gender equality is no mere
coincidence. Since the push for parliamentary parity is often part of a
larger effort surrounding equal rights, greater representation is more
likely to be the product of progressive social change than a precursor
to it. The relationship between identity, representation and equality is
neither inevitable nor irrelevant, but occasionally contradictory and
always complex.

It's comforting to know there are simple words of
racial reassurance I can tell my son when he's three. It would be even
better to imagine that he would not be in need of that kind of
reassurance by the time he reaches 23.