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Commentary: Identity politics is an honorable American tradition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2009 - Although some opponents of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court decry the notion of “identity politics,” that notion has been with us for more than 150 years.

It stems from people’s desire to see someone like them in the halls of government, which became possible in the second half of the 19th century. Immigration filled our nation’s cities with members of many ethnic and religious groups who lived in enclaves with those from the same country. Machine politics offered representation to these “huddled masses who yearned to breathe free.”

Municipal governance was based on the division of a city into wards. And these wards paralleled neighborhoods dominated by a particular immigrant group. The precinct captain or even the committeeman came from the same group and aided his fellows with jobs and informal social services.

In the first years of the 20th century, Progressive reformers, white native-born and wealthy Protestants, attempted to eliminate machine governance and replace immigrants and their sons in public positions with people like themselves. Although they succeeded in some places, it was only a matter of time until immigrant heirs entered public life again.

The concept of a “balanced ticket” is emblematic of the representation of diverse groups. New York City’s Democratic Party has become famous for pairings of Irish, Italians, Jews, African-Americans and Puerto Ricans on its ballot. There was less diversity in Chicago’s machine. Though the Irish dominated for decades, there was a place for Italians, Poles and Jews.

However much municipal diversity some cities achieved, however, did not carry over to the highest echelons nor to the private sector. Writing in the interwar years, organization theorist Chester Barnard recommended that executives hire people like them, men who had attended the same school and went to the same church.

The ethnic enclaves in cities have become less pronounced, particularly since the Second World War. The flight to suburbia created greater intermingling among the white population and the melting pot melted to a certain degree.

The more recent African American and Hispanic arrivals in cities still lived largely in their own enclaves and encountered significant discrimination. Where ward elections pertained, blacks and Latinos were able to elect city council members, state legislators and eventually members of Congress. In communities with at-large elections, such diversity among elected officials was much harder to come by.

Plus, in many locales, the bureaucracy too had little diversity. In 1969, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that there was as much discrimination in local government as in the private sector. The protective services — police and fire — were particularly unrepresentative.

Judicial and executive action made the achievement of greater representation the law.

  • For a variety of jurisdictions, the court mandated district elections to increase minority representation.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 called for the elimination of discrimination in education and employment.
  • President Richard Nixon ordered affirmative action to redress imbalances in firms that contract with the federal government.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Act applied that order to state and local government in 1972.

Since that time, minority as well as female representation has increased in hiring and in selection for elected office. However, there are still incongruities based on race, ethnicity and gender. The move to greater diversity has had a spillover effect. White males have sometimes felt they received the short end of the stick while minorities still looked for someone like themselves in elected and agency offices.
The Supreme Court is no stranger to representative appointments. Originally, there was the Catholic seat and then the Jewish seat on the court. Thurgood Marshall became the first holder of the black seat and Sandra Day O’Connor had the first woman’s seat. Sotomayor will be the first Latina on the high court.

Representation of this county’s diversity aids in engendering legitimacy to the governmental process. A court justice, a city council member, a police officer or any other official are products of their particular upbringing and values. Giving a particular group access is a long American tradition that reflects this country’s lack of homogeneity. Women have also had to struggle for inclusion and that battle is far from over as well. Identity politics will only cease when the disparate racial, ethnic and religious identifications cease.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.