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The Fine Print of “Representation Matters”

We tend to celebrate diversity and representation in a racist-capitalist system as a sign of progress. We often fail, however, to examine how it is frequently weaponized to maintain the status-quo and oppress the very people it is supposed to uplift.

K.S. Mehta

November 22, 2020
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In 2019, while working as faculty at the University of Minnesota, I attended a symposium on how to retain American Indian and faculty of color. During a breakout session, a speaker, who was a Black woman, remarked that she did not think she could be militant when advocating against structural racism at work. She said that doing so would close the door for other Black women because they too would be perceived as militant and angry, which would hurt their chances of professional advancement. 

On November 4, 2020, I was arrested as part of a mass arrest on the I-94 freeway in Minneapolis while volunteering as a street medic at a protest. The protest was organized by several community organizations and labor unions to protest Trump and to highlight the fact that a Biden win will not be a solution to how capitalism continues to profit off our lives. That night, over 600 people, including peaceful protestors, street medics, legal observers and community organizers, were kettled on the highway by Minneapolis police and state troopers. For five hours, we were detained on the highway without access to bathrooms, food, water, or medications. In the so-called progressive Twin Cities where police murdered George Floyd, Jamar Clark, Thurman Blevins, and Philando Castile, this planned and deliberate repression of peaceful community members and organizers should not have been surprising. But it was surprising for many of us who had never had a police encounter—other than receiving speeding tickets—to experience the Twin Cities as the police state that it is. Many of the arrestees got their first glimpse of the reality that so many BIPOC have existed in. 

For many of us BIPOC, police reform is simply police brutality reimagined. According to a city council member aide, the order to kettle and arrest protestors was issued by the commissioner of public safety, John Harrington – a Black man. The chief of Minneapolis Police, Medaria Arradondo, is also a Black man. His predecessor, Janee Harteau, is a Native American woman. Minnesota’s lieutenant governor is also Native American. 

On November 8, 2020, University of Minnesota students and labor organizers gathered on campus to call out Democratic leaders, in particular,  Dr. Joan Gabel, the first woman president of the University of Minnesota, for her silence over the arrest of so many of her students (including students of color) during the November 4 protest, while touting “inclusivity” in her emails and brochures. 

On a cursory glance, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul give the illusion of being progressive cities under Democratic leadership. The reality is much different. These leaders, who pay lip service to progressive movements like Black Lives Matter and immigration justice, are actually themselves agents of repression because their interests are fundamentally tied to the interests of the ruling class. “Representation matters” is an insufferable phrase touted by liberals since Barack Obama was elected President. It has now been brought back to life after Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first Indian American,  and the first Caribbean American to be elected to the office of the Vice President of the United States. A South Asian friend of mine announced that she was going to make samosas in celebration. Another friend was excited to have a “Kamala aunty” in the White House. The same enthusiasm continued as Biden announced that his transition team included Cecilia Muñoz, a Latina. Muñoz, a former immigration advisor to Obama, has defended Obama’s brutal immigration policies. Biden also named Shawn Skelly, a transgender veteran, to be part of his transition team.

There is a meme that captures the myth of representation. It shows what appears to be a Muslim couple with a drone dropping a bomb over them. The man says, “They say the next ones [drones] will be sent by a woman!” to which the woman replies, “Makes you feel like you’re part of history.”

While it is understandable for people to celebrate diversity in what were previously white spaces, an unexamined part of this celebration of diversity is how neoliberalism has become so adept at designating leaders from marginalized groups to maintain a racist-capitalist system of oppression. There is much focus in professional spaces to create a pipeline for marginalized candidates, but the fact that these people from marginalized backgrounds will now be used to maintain the racist-capitalist structures such as the police, for-profit healthcare systems, and financial institutions  is often overlooked. I first read about the  misleadership class in Devyn Springer’s article in The Independent, but it has also been discussed by others before him.  Walter Rodney, for instance,  in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa  writes that colonial rulers gave positions of power to a select few members of the oppressed class to keep the masses in check. In his article Springer discusses how Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Killer Mike and T. I came together to reprimand the people of Atlanta who were rising up to protest the systemically violent epidemic of recent police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade. Springer (who is based in Atlanta), said that even though these “leaders” might genuinely care about working class Black people, their class interests were actually aligned with that of the capitalist ruling class.  Another recent example of this was when Barack Obama helped shut down the NBA strike against police brutality.

Systemic racism has been an ugly byproduct of this global capitalist system. People of color have been historically oppressed for profit through exploitation of the global south, slavery, foreign wars, sanctions, and the prison industrial complex. Now in the current stage of global capitalism, as some people holding marginalized identities are finally able to acquire capital, their class interests also shift from the oppressed to that of the ruling class. These new bourgeoisie are designated as leaders and often called on to parade their marginalized identities to whip the working class into shape. They are used as examples of success and voices of reason to quell uprisings. So, representation really does matter. It especially matters to Democrats who since have become skilled in using marginalized identities of working class people to do their work of neoliberalism and global imperialism while they con us into celebrating the diverse backgrounds of our oppressors. Representation matters when Black and Brown girls can see that they, too, can be the second-in-command to a murderous empire that has kept foreign countries impoverished through wars and sanctions. Representation matters when the next cop killing unarmed Black people also happens to be Black. Representation matters when a healthcare system exploiting workers and patients for profits happens to be headed by a woman or a nonbinary person. Such is the fine print of representation. It looks like progress and  it absolves racialized capitalism of all responsibility for the suffering of the masses.

Focusing solely on skin color, gender identity, and sexual orientation-based representation without examining the underlying racialized capitalism that has created these disparities only detracts from the work we need to do. Such individual tokenism is little more than a seductive cover for a lack of willingness to change the economic, social, and political conditions that keep groups marginalized. The capitalist-friendly myth of representation also gives the false impression that the only way to succeed is to go through and stay inside the confines of the “pipeline” laid down by our oppressors. We should stop falling for it.

In the status quo capitalist system, individual professional advancement often comes at the cost of keeping others oppressed and subservient in the US and globally. We cannot achieve liberation through the superficial and deceptive tactics of representation and individual competition. Our liberation will only come through the struggle for a society free from exploitation and all forms of oppression.

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K.S. Mehta

K.S. Mehta is a research assistant in New York City.

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