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Monday, August 11, 2014

The Majority Fallacy

Non-white politicians? Hey, I don't know… how about the PRESIDENT? And I don't understand why there has to be a hullaballoo about minorities in movies--if they fit the part, they should get the role. Let's look at the flip-slide, why are all those Tyler Perry movies ONLY with African Americans? Is that necessary? Should a black actress get a part that a white actress happens to be better at just because she is black? Of course not! And vice versa! And let's see, this semester I do not have any black professors… I have three white professors, one Hispanic professor, and one Chinese professor, and two are women. So that seems pretty broad to me. The point is, white people make up the MAJORITY of the population here. So it makes sense that they would make up the MAJORITY of politicians, professors, talk show hosts, actors, etc."

First, I'd like to say thanks to James for capturing so many problematic and commonly held misconceptions about race relations in the U.S.

What percentage of people out of any given population can be said to be successful? Can we predetermine success?
The answers are complicated, but decidedly less so when privilege is taken into account. Privilege may take the form of social connections, monetary privilege, emotional support systems (family, or friends), and also institutionalized support systems and representation in media. Sometimes these are present all at once or sometimes only one single form can be found at a time.
The majority fallacy is a phrase meant to explain the idea that, because white people are the majority of the U.S. population, their overwhelming presence in media, high-paying positions, and positions of power (ex. politicians) can be explained without employing the lens of institutional racism. This fallacy also leans heavily on "meritocracy" and that to be truly "post racial" or beyond racism, our society must only look at individuals based on their abilities and not at their background or other identities. In essence, this fallacy erases many of the identities either responsible for or that contribute to the narratives that play out in POC lives or anyone with a minority identity. 
The only thing it would "make sense" to deduce from the statement "The majority of the population (63.0%) is white"*, is that the majority of the population is white. In other words, this statistic does not justify nor does it properly explain the hurling of white citizens into the upper echelons of society. 

If the statistics were framed differently, perhaps this disparity would become more jarring and apparent to people like James:

Society has a minority of people of color, yet the majority of people who are incarcerated are POC (black males specifically).


  1. People of color, the vast majority of humankind ... are 18.3 percent of the major network prime time cast.
(cite credit here)

While in some areas, James may be entirely correct about who comprises the majority, there can be no one pie chart, fraction, or statistic that excuses the others shown above.

This fallacy conversely implies that minorities make up the lesser parts of society but does not address the complex reasons why and again brings us to the system of meritocracy and the belief that, if you simply do enough work, you will be rewarded fairly.
There will perhaps always be more white people than people of color in the US, but this paradigm suggests that there will also always be more successful white people. 
According to this fallacy, there's nothing wrong with the system, because the system is just simple arithmetic: 
More white people=more of everything; 
less POC=less of everything.
But that math is formed from baseless stereotypes and implicit biases which lead many to conclude that black people just aren't pulling their weight to earn a top spot. 
This thought process leads us to believe that if people of color have a problem, the problem is with them inherently and not with the system that holds them there. 
Hopefully now the problems with this "logic" have become clear.
Population simply doesn't correspond to positive representation in media nor in higher education; it has everything to do with privilege and bias, and little to do with actual fair numbers.

It may also be necessary to mention that this plays into the irrational fear that there are a limited number of "successful" slots and that, once they are taken, the rest of us will be left to fend for ourselves. Certainly this is true of politics, since there are actually a set number of representatives that can be elected each term. 
However, some seem at odds with advocating for equal representation of POC in any form, including or especially in politics. One or two is certainly enough, the rest of the slots must be reserved. 
As far as politicians are concerned, the US Senate, which has been convening for over 225 years (since 1789), has a one page list of all 26 of the minorities that have served at least one term. This, out of 1,950 total representatives in the senate.

Even if James' misguided ideas regarding racial proportions were true, that would still mean that only 1.3% of the total reps were people of color. Since there were institutional blocks that prevented POC from participating as representatives, some might say it's "unfair" to account for all of the representatives ever holding office so I'll just use who we have now. Currently there are five senators serving who are people of color. The senate has 100 members at any given time, so that means we have a whopping 5% representation for POC in the senate when the census puts the number of POC at 37% of the total population. Something about those numbers doesn't quite balance.

Without adequate representation in politics (and this is just the senate for simplicity's sake), how can minority groups rest assured that their interests and voices will be heard? This is not to imply that the representatives who are white cannot hear their constituents appeals for change. Simply, smaller factions have always been told they would be given proper representation so that their interests could be heard and someone with the same interests has clear motivation to pursue them. This was such an integral part of our governance that it was built into the foundations of our political system.

"In creating the Senate, the framers were careful to provide a safeguard against majority rule. Giving the small state of Delaware the same voting power as the large state of Virginia, for example, provided protection for the voice of the minority. (See more )

Why does this protection of the minority voice seem reasonable here, yet the same allowance is not given to some members of the larger society?

In addition to one's group not being represented in policy, there are only 5 faces of color in the senate for these communities to revere as models. Yes, there is a minority in a particularly prominent position, but it comes down to numbers and sheer exposure. This is about hearing minority voices, not being placated by electing one person to represent the interests of several different groups of color. This is also about seeing their faces represented in a broad range of ways in politics. Just as one person's views will not encapsulate those of several factions, one person's visage cannot encapsulate every POC's experience. To put it more bluntly: not every POC is "black".

Which brings us to media and publicly documented and displayed experiences.
James poses an excellent question about all-black casts in theater or movies, "Is that necessary"?
The same could be asked of many of the mainstream movies now which have only one "token" POC. Are more movies that tell the same narratives of the same people necessary? They are certainly valuable, but is that to say other narratives which are shown much less in mass media [Q.E.D.] are not as valuable? Why are some narratives shown more than others?
Then comes the issue of which narratives are made available when POC are depicted. If those portrayals of POC are repeatedly not the main character in the story, and if the story presented is repeatedly a negative one, with what kind of brand does that leave POC? Even more to the point, how many executive producers and directors are POC? If the answer follows the trend of these other figures, that leaves POC communities with even less chance to represent themselves and their interests and yet another time when someone else designates how they will be depicted, thus becoming a passive group in an active and systematic smear campaign. 

Implying that white people simply make up the "better" part of society because there are more of them, is nefarious at best and color-blind racism at its worst. But, in a coercive system, when the options are to be invisible or be demonized, is there really a right answer? James seems to think so. 

*It is certainly of note to me that certain middle-eastern races are categorized as "white" on the U.S. census cited herein. This means there are likely even more POC who are simply being categorized as white and who would augment the numbers of POC to something above the 37% quoted.

**"African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites" -NAACP

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