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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Leaders or tokens?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2010 - A recent Pew Research Center poll found that there is no consensus about a national Latino leader. My critique is not with the research but with the cultural tendency to frame questions about leadership and people of color in such a way. To be fair, the question was part of a larger bilingual national telephone survey that reached 1,375 Hispanic Americans. But to my knowledge, we have yet to explicitly survey White Americans to assess who they consider the most important White American leader in the country today.

When it comes to people of color, we have a tendency to want to narrow our understanding. If we can identify leaders, we can look to them for a quick guide to the issues for that constituency. We can condense the complex needs of a large group of people into the needs deemed important by a small group of people.

In some respects, I understand why we might feel the need to ask the question. At 47 million, more than 15 percent of the population, Latinos are the largest group of color in the United States. The recent midterm elections were historic for Latinos -- three Latino candidates won top statewide offices. With the immigration debate, it seems natural that we would be cognizant of whose voice is at the forefront. However, to ask the question who is "the most important Latino leader in the country today," implies that there should be one. Yet Latinos, as with other populations of color, are not monolithic.

I believe it is because of the dynamics of racism in our society that we choose to focus on who the leadership is in communities of color. If we were truly the colorblind society we claim to be, we would either a) not be concerned with leaders from "x" communities, because we don't see color or b) be concerned with identifying leaders from "x" communities to then ensure that we had proportionate representation.

My experience is that we are in neither category. Our concern for identifying leaders often comes from a consciousness (whether acknowledged of not) that things remain unequal. Disparities exist. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves who can speak on behalf of the oppressed. We want to appear as though we are bringing people to the table to address the problem.

That disconnect is why we will not see a survey asking White Americans who they consider the most important White leader today. We ask the question of those on the margins.

It was asked of Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement at a time when discrimination against African Americans garnered national attention (as it continues to be) just as it is being asked of the growing population of Latinos. Yet that mentality limits wide-scale progress regardless of who is in power. If you only allow one or two people who are designated as leaders from the marginalized group to the table, you do not automatically achieve equality. It's called tokenism, and it has its limits.

Maybe it is for the best that 64 percent of respondents said they did not know whom they considered the most important Latino leader in the country today, and another 10 percent responded "no one." Perhaps Latinos can resist our desire to shortcut a full understanding of their diverse community via the designation of a spokesperson. Perhaps they will find a way to balance the need for collective action without being narrowly defined.

My take home point after reading the full report is that we need to challenge ourselves to not cave to our default designations rather to do more than look at one person's talking points to wrap our minds around the needs and talents of millions of Americans.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

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