Why diversity matters

Last week on International Women’s Day, many celebrated how far women have come in our struggle for equality, yet we remember how far we have to go. Also last week, Mark Besonen wrote “In defense of white males.” As a member of the group himself, he felt compelled to defend white males against my “shameful attack on an entire demographic of people” in my March 4th article entitled “Youth in politics.”

My original article lamented the fact that our government does not contain within it nearly the same amount of diversity that we see in the general population. Besonen understood this to mean that I believe that white males are less capable of governing than the rest of the United States’ population. This is clearly untrue. All people, regardless of race and sex, are equally capable of serving in government. It is precisely because race and sex distinctions have no bearing on a person’s ability to lead that a white male-dominated congress is indefensible. People of all backgrounds in this country should have an equal opportunity to affect politics, and a quick look at the backgrounds of the majority of national politicians makes it clear that they do not.

A white male-dominated government is problematic beyond its injustice to people interested in becoming involved in politics; it is simply incapable of effectively serving a country that is not majority white male. Our government may truly intend to represent the interests of all of its constituents equally, but that is a tall order when the people who make it up do not represent the rest of the population.

For a very tangible example of the dangers of non-representative government, think for a moment about the United States’ paper currency. There is no tactile difference between the various paper denominations of our money. The non-visually impaired designers of our currency did not make it this way to intentionally discriminate against the vision-impaired and yet it is discriminatory. Perhaps if a person with a vision-impairment had been involved in creating our currency, it would not have had this shortcoming.

When the Family and Medical Leave Act passed in 1993, many in the male-majority congress saw it as a real victory for women. Had female perspectives been more represented in negotiating that act, they might have understood that a six-week unpaid maternity leave was no victory at all for a new mother.

More recently, we can look at The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The act was designed to improve the standards in our nation’s lowest-performing schools, many of which are in socioeconomically underprivileged neighborhoods that serve non-white student populations. In practice, the act ended up hurting these students. Had more diverse perspectives been present at the policy-making table, the act might have had less discriminatory results. Despite our government’s best intentions, this sort of institutional discrimination is inevitable when our policymakers come in disproportionately large numbers from the same backgrounds.

Besonen argues that the problem with our government today is that it is out of touch with the realities of the people. I agree. That is exactly why we need a government that represents the people. Nearly 70 percent of congress is white and male, but only 35 percent of the general population is. This goes beyond race and sex to other demographic factors including socioeconomic status and age. Eleven out of every 22 members of congress are millionaires; 21 out of every 22 Americans are not. A congress made up of our country’s richest people is ill-equipped to understand the economic realities of the rest of us.

To go back to my original point about age, the median age in America is 37. In congress, it is nearly 60 years old. While there is certainly something to be said for experience in politics, there is also something to be said for the power of new ideas and ways of thinking that youth bring to the table.

Diversity in people means diverse perspectives. Diverse perspectives mean that more ideas get considered when policy decisions are being made. I am not saying that white males should not be in government – that would be ludicrous – but the percentage of white males in our government should more closely reflect the percentage of white males in our population. To argue for a government that is reflective and representative of the diversity of our people is not racist. To say that the blatant inequality in our current government is acceptable, on the other hand, might be.

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