Represent! Represent!

steve cohen.jpg

Adam Serwer mentioned this on his blog, but today, President Obama endorsed Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen. Cohen is the only white U.S. House member to represent a majority-black district and has been the target of race-based attacks from challengers. In 2008, former Harold Ford aide Nikki Tinker tried to race-bait her way to a primary win with a campaign that basically argued Cohen's race was the reason to oppose him. This year, Cohen is facing a challenge from former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, and like Tinker before him, Herenton is pushing the view that Cohen's race makes him a poor representative:

His opponent in next month's Democratic primary, former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, even refers to the lack of racial diversity in Tennessee's congressional delegation on his campaign Web site. A page titled "This Picture Looks Better" includes a photo of Herenton alongside the state's all-white delegation.

Of course, this is nonsense. As someone from a heavily black and Democratic district, Cohen has done an excellent job of representing his constituents' interests. Thus far in the 111th Congress, he's voted with his party 98.2 percent of the time, including votes on the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, and financial reform. The fact that Cohen is white has absolutely nothing to do with his ability to represent the district well. Which, incidentally, reminds me of a point I've wanted to make for some time.

Generally, we tend toward conflating symbolic representation -- having a congressperson that looks like you -- with substantive representation. We assume that a congressperson who looks like you is more likely to represent your interests. In other words, women will advocate for women, blacks for blacks, Latinos for Latinos, and so on. And to an extent, that's probably true. But it's also true that a monomaniacal focus on symbolic representation can actually hinder fair representation of majority interests.

Majority-minority districts, for example, are great for electing minority House members, but by consolidating minorities into a single congressional district -- especially into lopsided districts of 60 or 70 percent -- you're actually limiting minority representation by limiting the number of candidates who could actually appeal to minority votes. Better would be two districts with a large plurality of minority voters, so that incumbents and potential candidates in both districts are forced to make appeals and offer substantive representation. And better yet would be some form of proportional voting -- like Lani Guinier's "cumulative voting" -- that would give minorities greater electoral influence.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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