The Miner’s Canary

The Miner’s Canary

The problems of people of color show what’s wrong with American democracy.


The old tale about the walled city of Verona has something to tell us about the present political situation in the United States. Over time, the story goes, the population inside the wall grew and the city became overcrowded. The problems from this circumstance mounted, until one day the bishop decided something had to be done and called a meeting with the chief rabbi. The bishop said, “The overcrowding has become unbearable. The Jews must leave.” The chief rabbi said, “Leave? But we have lived here for generations! Surely we should talk about so drastic a measure.” The bishop replied, “But who should talk? We could have a debate. But everyone in town cares about the subject.” The rabbi proposed, “We could hold it in the amphitheater; there is room for everyone.” But the bishop said, “No one could hear us there. It will have to be a silent debate.” And so they agreed.

The appointed day arrived. Everyone turned out and watched expectantly as the bishop began. He raised his right hand up to the sky. The rabbi brought his right hand down and pointed to his left palm. The bishop held up three fingers. The rabbi held up one. The bishop reached under his chair and took out a wafer and ate it, and a glass of wine and sipped it. The rabbi pulled out an apple and took a bite. At that moment, the bishop leapt up and said to the rabbi, “You are right, the Jews can stay. We in Verona will have to find another way to solve our problem.”

A crowd gathered around the bishop, excited and perplexed. “We followed the debate very closely, but what exactly was said?” one person asked. “Ah, the man was brilliant,” exclaimed the bishop. “I said, ‘The Lord of All commands that the Jews leave Verona today.’ He replied, ‘But the Lord is here in Verona with the Jews, too.’ I answered, ‘The three aspects of the Trinity–the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost–guide us on this matter.’ And he answered, ‘But there is just one Almighty, one King of the Universe.’ I responded with the wafer and the wine to say, ‘Jesus died for our sins so the Christians could be saved.’ But he responded with the apple, noting ‘We are all children of Adam and Eve.’ And indeed we are. We are in this together; we will work it out together.”

Meanwhile a crowd surrounded the rabbi. “Rabbi, rabbi, rabbi, what happened?” they cried. “I have no idea,” said the rabbi. “The bishop said, ‘The Jews of Verona must leave here today.’ I answered, ‘We are staying right here.’ He returned, ‘I will give you three days to pack.’ I offered, ‘We’ll take a week.’ Then he ate his lunch and I ate mine.”

Many messages are embedded in this story. The one we focus on here is the way the bishop and the rabbi embody contemporary American concepts of representation as defined by the US Supreme Court. The clerics “represented” the citizens of Verona in a public conversation. But it was a conversation conducted exclusively through the use of publicly incomprehensible symbols. Although professing to seek a forum with room for all the citizens of the town, the bishop and the rabbi in fact communicated not at all with those seated in the amphitheater. Their authority attracted a rapt audience, but the citizens themselves were not engaged in the process of decision-making. This was representational synecdoche–the part substituted for the whole. The rabbi substituted for the Jews, the bishop substituted for the Christians, and their silent interaction substituted for the conversation of democracy.

American democracy is today constituted by elites who are charged with policy deliberation and are presumably held accountable through elections. Those elections, however, often offer little real choice and thus fail to engender meaningful dialogue between voters and those who win elections. Like the bishop and the rabbi, these elites operate at a disconnect from–and are often unintelligible to–those they “represent.” Big-money politics and the media have reduced voters to spectators, like those earnest citizens who observed the silent dialogue in Verona’s amphitheater. The political parties are almost empty shells whose primary function is to raise money on a vast scale to finance costly media-based campaigns. Even party conventions, which once offered the possibility of rich democratic participation for some activists, are now carefully stage-managed events. Coded gestures and rhetorical winks stand in for complex ideas; dialogue and community participation are absent. Candidates are produced and packaged for a television audience, celebrated and orchestrated with elaborate story lines, a sales pitch, message discipline and a showcase of “people who symbolize what [the candidate] stands for,” as President George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, pithily put it. The entrenchment of the two major political parties has contributed to an institutional torpor that sucks the vigor out of political debates.

These contemporary practices rest on a combination of peculiarly American ideas about democracy. One such idea is that democracy is mainly about the right of individuals to choose individual candidates, and not about the value of mobilizing groups that form around common concerns to participate in an ongoing democratic conversation. Another idea is that when groups must be formed in order to elect representatives, the best way to form them is through geographic districts created by politicians who choose which voters to represent. The assumption here is that representatives should be elected by aggregations of individuals that may have nothing more in common than geographic proximity. Third, American-style elections give all the power to the candidate who emerges with the most votes, and then declares that winner the representative of “the whole district.” This myth–that the majority stands in for the minority–tries to convince the electorate that something is present that is in fact absent, namely, true representation. Just as the flag stands for the nation, candidate-centered winner-take-all elections, we are asked to believe, can somehow stand in for genuine participatory democracy.

These ideas are the central dogma of the Supreme Court’s representational theology. Consistent with the elite-centered notions of some of the Constitution framers, the Court claims that whoever wins an election represents everyone, even those who voted against the winning candidate. This understanding of representation reflects the same synecdoche embodied by the rabbi and the bishop in Verona. Had the bishop won a citywide election (primarily because there were more gentiles in Verona than Jews), he would then have “represented” the Jews even though the Jews had not voted for him, even as he ordered them to leave. The bishop would have been standing in for everyone in the city of Verona.

In short, the dominant approach to representation in the United States today seems to worship at the shrine of synecdoche, ignoring the complexity of the representational relationship in a multiracial democracy. Democracy is supposed to bring the people into the arena of public decision-making as participants, not as spectators. However, our system of representation, based on winner-take-all elections, means that a majority of citizens in the nation at any given moment are not represented by people whom they chose to represent them and are thus alienated from meaningful democratic participation. Alienation is further exacerbated for people of color, who experience arbitrary constraints superimposed by a highly racialized political landscape. Our system erects barriers that dissuade many people of color from even attempting to engage in political activity. When we do vote, the candidate we support often loses or our votes are simply not counted. In Florida during the 2000 presidential election, for example, over half the votes not counted were cast by black people, who made up only 11 percent of the electorate, according to the Civil Rights Commission. The system is no more legitimate in representing people of color than a similar system would have been in representing the Jews of Old Verona.

What the exclusion of black voters in Florida illustrates is that race is like the miner’s canary. Miners often carried a canary into the mine alongside them. The canary’s more fragile respiratory system would cause it to collapse from noxious gases long before humans were affected, thus alerting the miners to danger. The canary’s distress signaled that it was time to get out of the mine because the air was becoming too poisonous to breathe. Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner’s canary: Their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. It is easy enough to think that when we sacrifice this canary, the only harm is to communities of color. Yet others ignore problems that converge around racial minorities at their own peril, for these problems are symptoms warning us that we are all at risk. The mistake is to see the defects as local to Florida instead of endemic to our electoral processes.

As the canary metaphor reminds us, by starting with the experience of people of color we can begin to identify the crucial missing elements of American democracy–missing elements that make the system fail not just for blacks or Latinos but for other groups that are similarly situated. It is not preordained that democracy is best realized by creating a hierarchy in which an elected representative acts and the voters watch. The Constitution does not mandate the aggregation of people into geographic election units. The choice we have made to create territorial districts does not reflect a particularly democratic sensibility, especially when such districts are used in conjunction with winner-take-all rules. Winner-take-all territorial districting is fundamentally flawed because some minority–black, Republican or Green–will always feel unrepresented. A commitment to geographical districting also pushes the legal system into inconsistency and depresses voter turnout, further eviscerating democracy. With only half of eligible voters participating even in presidential elections, the United States has one of the lowest levels of electoral participation in the democratic world; of the 172 countries that profess to be democracies, 80 percent have higher levels of voter turnout. Ostensibly developed to protect the people from an unelected monarchy, our winner-take-all elections have recreated a political hierarchy that diminishes the people’s role in determining their own destiny and privileges institutional order over widespread and ongoing public participation.

But while the flaws in our political system affect all voters, we start the exploration of its defects with the experience of people of color. We do so not only because, like the miner’s canary, race helps expose larger systemic failure but also because we have a motivational goal–to imagine and inspire alternative and less hierarchical representational relationships that can evolve from the insights that the miner’s canary provides. Broadly speaking, our goal is to explore how racialized identities may be put to service to achieve social change through democratic renewal. We want to revive the promise of a cross-racial project of social change. Toward these ends, we link the metaphor of the canary with a conceptual project we call political race, and in so doing we propose a new, twenty-first-century way of talking about this distinctly American challenge.

With political race we seek to move beyond the idea that race is merely a stigma or a burden carried by those who have been its victims. Race is a political category, not just a moral one. Racialized communities are a source of solidarity that can be used to mobilize resistance to powerful and inequitable hierarchies. Race, in other words, can be an asset. The sense of systemic critique and linked fate experienced by many communities of color has the potential, if nourished, to foster broad-based participation in civil society and governance that helps revitalize the way we conceive and practice democracy.

The role political race can play in democratic renewal can be understood by examining conventional efforts to rectify the exclusion of people of color from public life. These remedies–principally, majority-minority districts–have operated within the context of geographic districts and winner-take-all elections, so they remain mired in the flaws of representational synecdoche. Indeed, these shortcomings have prompted the Supreme Court to strike down a number of majority-minority districts over the past decade. The Court, however, has limited its critique to districts involving race; its jurisprudence is thus hopelessly confused, because the problems the Court identifies in majority-minority districts are fundamentally about weaknesses inherent to all districts in our present electoral system. These problems are endemic to representational synecdoche itself. To reclaim the missing elements of representation, it is necessary to consider alternative electoral systems such as a mixed system, like Germany’s, that combines territorial districts with a party-list system, or cumulative voting, used by many corporate boards and, for more than 100 years, to elect the Illinois legislature. Cumulative voting allows voters to plump or aggregate their votes strategically to reflect the intensity of their preferences in a multiseat election. With five members of a city council up for election, for example, each voter would get five votes, which they could cast in any combination (five on one candidate, one on each of the five, etc.). These proportionate and semiproportionate systems not only better represent voters based on their own choices; they enable local political organizations to emerge by giving them a legislative voice in proportion to the number of voters they mobilize.

Such representational models are based on a more fluid idea of both racial and political representation. They call upon intermediate groups, including those forged by a political race commitment, that offer conditions for democratic participation that have largely been ignored or disregarded–groups that, rather than reflecting geographic districts, coalesce at a specific time in response to a specific issue.

For all their virtues, however, proportional representation and other temporary installations of a citizen voice within a winner-take-all election arrangement are not likely, standing alone, to deliver more substantive justice. To fulfill the vision of our political race project, even proportional voting systems must be supplemented by a fuller and more interactive conception of representation. Participation involves more than just voting. An expanded democratic base alone is not enough; we need to push beyond an election-centered focus on ratifying the distribution of power as if it were a fixed commodity.

Yet a more participatory view of politics can have short-term benefits. Indeed, surprising reforms can occur in the interstices of existing institutions. Our political system might heed the lessons of the canary to create space for political organizations to proliferate at the local level. Were that to happen, more people might feel, as political scientist Michael Dawson reports that the vast majority of blacks do, “that their fate as individuals is tied to the fate of the group as a whole.” It is this sense of common fate or common destiny that a political system premised on radical individualism destroys. While the choice and definition of the group will and should vary, a greater sense of common fate could revive politics to become more of what philosopher Hannah Pitkin reminds us it is supposed to be: “the possibility of a shared, collective, deliberate, active intervention in our fate, in what would otherwise be the byproduct of private decisions.” We here offer an example.

The Workplace Project, a group of undocumented immigrant workers, initiated a campaign to adopt stricter penalties for homeowners and small businesses that failed to pay their workers [see Jennifer Gordon, “Immigrants Fight the Power,” January 3, 2000]. Role-play training was used to rehearse lobbying visits by these nonvoting, non-English-speaking constituents to several conservative Republican legislators in New York. The Workplace Project helped the workers meet and recruit ten Republican state senators, five from suburban Long Island, to co-sponsor their legislation. Aided by simultaneous translation using radio transmitters, the immigrants themselves “ran the meeting, explained the problem, outlined their proposed solution and fielded the senators’ questions,” says former executive director Jennifer Gordon. This is a very different dynamic than is possible when the rabbi and the bishop gesture in the amphitheater to a silent audience. Thanks to the educational and advocacy opportunities that the Workplace Project provided, the workers got a sense of their own power–even though they could not vote. The immigrant workers generated ideas; they acted in concert to implement their solutions. Nonvoting constituents came forward, worked together and proposed new legislation. The Unpaid Wages Prohibition Act, dramatically increasing the penalties against employers who do not pay their workers, was signed into law in 1997 by Republican Governor George Pataki.

In sum, ours is not so much a theory of representation as it is an effort to describe missing elements in conventional ideas about representation. The expertise and wisdom of natural leaders like the rabbi and the bishop are valuable, but it is also important to acknowledge the value of the viewpoints of those whom the representative is, in principle, meant to support, and particularly the opinions of those with the most to lose. This involves taking the third step of political race, imagining “power-with” experiments in political deliberation and organization that are engaging for, and transformative of, both the individual and the group.

We have seen race–as in political race–become an important tool in mobilizing communities of resistance to exercise their political imagination and foster democratic involvement from the bottom up. By contrast, class in contemporary American politics is as individuated as any other variable. Unless one has a community orientation toward structural rather than individual pathologies, it is difficult to understand either race or class. Nevertheless, we continue to believe that a political race project must assert its linkages to class, gender and sexuality or else risk fragmentation.

Participants in the political race project may encourage these linkages to emerge because of what joint participation does to us, not just for us. Participation is not solely a means to gain a specific benefit; it is also a means of understanding our own position. Different ideas energize the process and challenge us to rethink our own truths. On the other hand, political race is an inherently unstable activity. What it means to belong must be constantly renegotiated. Similarly, our political race project may need to be reconfigured once it is no longer a project of transformation; moving from an oppositional stance to the exercise of traditional forms of state power is beyond our current imaginings. Yet even within the current system, we believe meaningful change is possible.

And if it succeeds, political race will stand in sharp contrast to the “one-way libertarianism” that Nicholas Lemann has decried in The New York Times Magazine. In the emerging selfishness that Lemann observes, middle-class voters believe that government owes the resources to support individual opportunity but that the individual owes nothing back to society. Missing is a broader, shared vision that goes beyond market values; instead, we get an invitation to participate simply as voters, not as true members of a civic community. According to Lemann, African-Americans and Latinos have not signed on to this libertarian worldview. By building on their community orientation, the political race project seeks to initiate a process that involves blacks and Latinos first as citizens and civic participants. The challenge then is to enlist allies in a social justice movement that embraces race as a political project and simultaneously explores innovative experiments in social and political engagement to critique and mobilize resistance against entrenched hierarchies of power.

That process and this challenge are inconsistent with a bureaucracy that protects the powerless as clients; it is a process, rather, that respects and indeed learns from their participation. It tries to create a politics, with values that permit collective decision-making, that goes beyond individual interests to foster interdependence, the ability to work through conflict rather than to avoid it and a willingness to share power as a force for innovation and not just control. It is through such a process that the canaries, and those who join forces with them, may help us to liberate the future by creating a space for political action to occur in the present.

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