Ted Rall: Why No One Talks About Tokenism Anymore

state of the union address tokenism ted rall
Written by Ted Rall

People used to talk about tokenism. But we no longer view tokenism as something that harms society and helps oppression. That’s dangerous, says Ted Rall. Here’s why.

aNewDomain ted-rall-on-same-sex-marriage-judicial-activism— Americans used to talk about tokenism. That’s what they called it when ruling elites elevate a member of an unprivileged or oppressed group in order to legitimize themselves without substantially changing the basic order of things.

During the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, blacks who joined white-dominated organizations were called Uncle Toms and Oreos. Leftists who worked for large corporations were deemed sellouts.

But this racial, class and general minority self-consciousness is no longer part of politics in this country. It’s a trend I blame at least in part on the triumph of the identity politics that now dominates liberalism and progressivism. (I omit leftism because, by international and historical standards, there is no organizational socialist or communist “left” in the United States worth even mentioning.)

Freed of the constraints of the criticism and social opprobrium of 50 years ago, tokenism has become not just tolerated, but celebrated, and not merely by what hippies used to call The Establishment — ie., the ruling elites, the media, the educational system and other institutions that support the existing power structure. Now, even within what passes for the “left” — the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, progressives, academics and other intellectuals —  people have no problem with it.

Among liberals, tokenism is no longer viewed not as something disgusting, no longer viewed roundly as a violation of personal integrity that undermines the struggle for emancipation by validating corrupt, oppressive rulers.

Instead, it’s prima facie evidence that that the struggle is advancing!

Exhibits A and B? Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.ted rall on tokenism

As is typically the case with political tokens, the president and leading contender for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president are not truly representative of the “minorities” whose advancement they purport to embody.

Unlike the vast majority of American blacks, who are descended from slaves, Obama is the biracial son of a white mother (pictured at right) and an Kenyan father.

Hillary Clinton is obviously a “real” woman, true.

But she is one whose major leg up is the fact that she married a president.

This hardly reflects any kind of a new and improved status for American women.

wedding picture bill clinton hillary rodham clintonRather she comes to us via the very old tradition of wives inheriting their politician husband’s status, like the widow of Hubert Humphrey, who inherited his senate seat, or Benazir Bhutto of the universally acknowledged patriarchy, Pakistan.

Despite their weird (in Obama’s case) and all-too-average (Hillary’s) career narratives, liberals and conservatives alike point to the president and former secretary of state as evidence that, respectively, we are either living in a “post-racial” society or soon will be, and that ladies “have come a long way, baby,” in the words of the old Virginia Slims cigarette ad.

To the political right, Obama and Clinton’s personal successes “prove” that discrimination against African-Americans and women, if they ever occurred (if they ever admitted it at the time, I missed it), are gone or at least quickly vanished, and thus require no further action (not that, in their minds, they ever did).

Never mind the statistics about black poverty.

Never mind the great likelihood that black men will go to prison at some point, sentencing disparities, slums, or the endless accounts of cops shooting black men who were unarmed, by the thousands.

state of the union address tokenism ted rallAnd never mind the ongoing salary differentials between male and female workers, or hey, ever noticed how male the room looks (see crowd image, at right) when the camera pans across members of Congress during a State of the Union Address?

For liberals, by which I mainly mean members of the sports franchise that goes by the name the Democratic Party, the First Black President and the strong possibility of a First Woman President are evidence that liberalism is working.

Sure, the signature legislative achievement of First Black President Obama, the Affordable Care Act, is a corporatist initiative whose final form differs little from and has its origins in a healthcare scheme developed by the Heritage Foundation, a far-right think tank that conceived it to suck the wind out of support for single-payer “socialized medicine.”

Yes, the possible First Woman President Clinton’s politics are, from trade to foreign affairs to taxes to privacy rights, firmly aligned with today’s Republican Party.

You do realize that Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been far too conservative to be viable even as a Republican candidate in the 1960s or 1970s?

But tokenism doesn’t value policies, ideas or ideology.

Tokenism is about individual personality.

Tokenism says: Look how great America is! Progress may come slowly, but comes it does. We have a black president! And now, maybe a woman too! Could a gay or lesbian, or a Jew, or a trans person be far behind?

Tokenism replaces ideology.

Ask a black American about Obama. Go ahead. Odds are he views him favorably.

trayvon martinThis is despite nearly seven years in office, during which, by all accounts (said accounts sourced from black civil rights leaders), the president has studiously avoided pressing for policy measures that would benefit black people — aside from a few measured statements following racially-charged controversies. Recall, after the Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin (pictured at left), Obama’s comment was: “If I’d had a son he would have looked like him.”

In his politics and policies, the president has been more non-racial than post-racial, and he has been an absentee leader on, say, employment discrimination and racism in the application of the death penalty.

Joe or Jane Average Black probably know all these things, yet they defend Obama against political attacks, even including those from his left, because they view him as a symbol of, perhaps not Hope or Change for black America, but perhaps as useful personal symbols for themselves.

If that “sort-of-black guy” became president, then maybe I, or my son or my granddaughter, might actually land a decent job!

You will see the same phenomenon at work among those Democratic women, mostly over 50 years of age or so, who are excited at the prospect of a President Hillary.

These women largely identify as liberal or progressive.They are mostly against wars of choice, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, mostly for a progressive tax code, mostly protectionist and mostly skeptical of free trade deals that outsource American jobs, mostly in agreement with Edward Snowden that the NSA shouldn’t be listening to our phone calls. For them  ideology is subordinate to symbolism.

Many of them are aware that Hillary isn’t one of them politically. They’re willing to overlook that.

They’re even to willing to vote for someone whose policies, and recent documented history of policies — they disagree with, for one reason: she’s a woman. They’ve waited 226 years for the First Woman President. Hillary might not be the perfect First Woman President — but she’s viable.

And if she wins the presidency, she then is able to serve as the Right Answer to little girls when they ask their moms: “Has there ever been a woman president?” Oh, yes, sweetie. There has.

The pro-Obama blacks (and non-blacks) and the pro-Hillary women (and men) mostly identify politically far to the left of those candidates. And what they are missing is the fundamental truth of tokenism.

Obama didn’t achieve the presidency despite the fact that he identifies as black.

Obama achieved the presidency because he is a conservative.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton has not gotten as close to the presidency as she has despite being a woman; she’s where she is because she is a right-winger.

Barry Goldwater Ted Rall tokenismTokenism is what the system sells you and me. And to the ruling classes, ideas and ideology are everything.

The right-wing extremist Barry Goldwater (pictured above right) said of gays that he didn’t care if they were straight, he cared if they shot straight. As long as they killed on behalf of the American imperialist state, propping up militarism, Goldwater was cool with fags.

Now in 2015, the Establishment is open to individual blacks, women, gays and other members of traditionally oppressed segments society who are willing to do its bidding. If Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton are willing to sign off on drone assassinations and NSA spying and bailouts of Wall Street brokerage houses while millions of ordinary people lost their homes, why not let them?

The system goes on.

That is all that matters.

Indeed, the system is stronger because of these tokens, these sellouts.

colin powell tokenismThe regime of Bush and Cheney wound up hated and reviled, but does anyone doubt that their long run on the high end of the opinion polls was extended by the Administration’s Uncle Toms, General Colin Powell (pictured left) and Secretary of State Condi Rice (pictured below right)?

Let’s look at it another way.

What are the chances, in the American system today, of a leftist achieving high political office, or a high-profile position in the media? Of even a white, tall, handsome, Ivy League-educated, able-bodied, Protestant leftist doing so?


Some reading this will scoff. A leftist? In America?

Well, why not?

All the other nations with political systems, economies and cultures similar to ours — Canada, Mexico, the UK, Australia, the countries of Europe — have high-profile progressives, socialists and communists in public life.

It’s not like there’s no interest in socialism or communism here incondoleeza rice ted rall tokenism the U.S. — polls consistently show that about half of American voters would like to get rid of capitalism and replace it with socialism and communism. This is remarkable considering that these ideologies are rarely discussed here, except as objects of scorn and terror.

So it’s not that people wouldn’t vote for a leftist or buy her books or tune him on TV or read her column in The New York Times.

The fact is, the Establishment won’t allow a leftist — whether said leftist is white or black, male or female.

The worst thing about tokenism is that it distracts us from the fact that we are not allowed to have a free-ranging political debate that considers a wide variety of possible solutions to problems.

Instead of this horrifying truth (we don’t live in a democracy), tokenism tells us that everything is peachy keen. We’re making progress! Look! You too, or maybe not you but someone who sort of looks like you, might be able to score a good gig within the system.

Tokenism thus appeals to that basest and rawest motivations, tribalist self-interest.

Taken to its logical conclusion, it is perfectly fine that white cops pull over black men without cause and shoot them in the back for no reason. Why? Because Barack Obama is president. Why? Because there might be more black Senators. Why? Because there are more black millionaires.

Extrapolating from this way of thinking, it doesn’t matter that women can’t walk city streets without fear of being raped, or that when they’re raped city police departments can’t be bothered to process their rape kits to try to catch their rapists.

Sheryl Sandberg tokenismBecause Hillary Clinton might become president. Because Sheryl Sandberg (left) made friends with Mark Zuckerberg and so scored a great job at Facebook, which gave her an in to pitch and promote her book.

Because the gap between men’s pay and women’s pay has shrunk a little (never mind that it’s because men’s wages have gone down, not that women’s have increased).

It is true that, as an able-bodied heterosexual Ivy-educated white male (albeit raised Catholic, with a foreign-born mother), I am open to attacks by those who say I am speaking from a position of privilege. My response to this point is this:

Yes, I enjoy a privileged position in American society. But I wish I didn’t. I wish and want, and am doing my best to help create, a country in which everyone is equal. I want to be deprivileged.

I want privilege itself to vanish.

I believe that what matters is not the color of your skin, or the shape of your genitals, but what’s in your brain and in your metaphorical heart. Until we achieve emanicipation, the oppressed would be far better off under the leadership of benevolent leftist WASPs than under the jackboots of evil right-wing trans lesbian disabled people.

Tokens like Obama and Clinton are unworthy of admiration.

To the contrary, they are repugnant and disgusting.

Consider what would happen if women and blacks and other oppressed sectors of American society refused to have anything to do with a system that gave us corporate welfare, the NSA’s police state, endless wars against nations few Americans can point to on a map like Yemen and Libya, the widening income gap, job outsourcing, police shootings and so on.

Apartheid America would collapse for lack of support and legitimacy.

We could get to work on a just, equal society.

Regardless of your identity politics classification, participating in this system endorses the oppression of billions of people around the world, and propagates it.

Even if it had been allowed, no Jew would have served in the SS, even if his idea was to work “within the system” “for reform.” Those who worked as the trusties — called “capos” in the death camps — were widely condemned and, after liberation, murdered.

It is time to restore the clear distinctions of class identity and consciousness before it is completely and totally eroded by the scourge of vacuous tokenism.

For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall. 

Barack Obama with his mother, Ann Dunham: TheWomensEye.com, All Rights Reserved.
Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton wedding picture: svatlas.ucoz.ru, All Rights Reserved.
Crowd shot at the 2015 US State of the Union Address: KansasCity.com, All Rights Reserved
Image of Trayvon Martin: NewsOne.com, All Rights Reserved.
Image of Barry Goldwater: TheBainesReport.org, All Rights Reserved.
Image of Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of her book Lean In:WCWonline.com, All Rights Reserved.
Image of Colin Powell: DA-SD-05-00599” by Master Sergeant Don Wetterman, USA – image was released by the United States Air Force and  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Condoleezza “Condi” Rice: Condi rice“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Comment

  • Ted, I have tried various methods to not participate in the system for years. But the system is complex and insidious. Working, paying taxes, voting, shopping at a grocery store, driving a car, and owning a home are some of the ways in which we participate in order to meet our basic needs of food, shelter and water. Watching television, buying and reading books, going to school, seeing a doctor, and even sitting here now typing on this computer to write a response to your article is participating. Because almost everything we do has been monetized or is in the process therof.

    The problem is as you said the celebration of privilege.

    The problem is also the privatization of anything. Privatization will always mean, in spite of the best intentions to share, that access is restricted and limited to a privileged few. For example, if a private art gallery, showing famous and historically significant works of art, charges a fee to come see them that limits and restricts access to a privileged few. If that same gallery offers a day of free admission, it is by tokenism, celebrating and perpetuating the system. For one day, people who can’t normally afford to go are given the opportunity and privilege to do so. And these poorer people are trained to be gratedul and appreciative of the system. And the ones that can pay the fee normally are further served to see themselves as above and better by the cruel trick that capitalism plays upon them. The trick being the false belief that their greater wealth and resources makes them better than or different from any other person on the planet. As I said, complex and insidious.

    Once I asked Bernie Sanders “What can the regular person do to effect real change?” about our broken privatised, privilege-driven system. His response was to “Be extraordinary.” and I found that response to be absolutely ludicrious, ridiculous and divorced from reality. Solutions of good and lasting value are not extraordinary. They are quite practical and ordinary, often refered to as common sense. We talk and talk and talk about these problems to death. And I do appreciate that you raise these questions and issues driving at the heart of important problematic issues that are the true and underlying source of what’s rotten about societies around the world. But like Bernie Sanders, you point out the problem and offer no practical solutions, so people may be inspired but ultimately they do nothing. And continue to participate in corrupt and oppressive systems.

    Well, you and others may be thinking “What’s YOUR solution and suggestions?”

    My solution to all problems is very simple, very practical but the most difficult because no one wants to do it: stop and change.

    To stop participating in the system you stop using money, you go back to bartering, you start appreciating and taking care with the things you do own, you stop watching and owning a television/computer/cell phone/vehicle/paying taxes/working/etc. But no one wants to stop doing all those things. Even I, after 11 days of hiking alone in the woods and bathing in icy streams, will paricipate in the system by paying a gas company for hot water so I can enjoy the luxury of it for fifteen minutes every other day. Although I often miss those days of hiking and not needing or wanting anyone else’s assistance to live my life or a hot shower. And Man is a social creature. To live alone is not practical for one’s sanity.

    So obviously, while all that I’ve mentioned and more is not practical to most people a better practical solution must be devised. It requires active change. The following changes are not simple solutions but they would be a greater and better equalizer. We begin with money and doing away with it completely. For housing, all utilities, computers, cell phones, internet access, food and transportation to be evenly distributed and given to all. Surely the ridiculous resouces spent on political campaigns, television advertising, payment of time in procesing loans, war, defense, etc could be better spent giving everyone homes, food, clean water, healthcare and education. Work, housing and leisure are assinged and rotated so everyone gets the benefit of change and “better” resources every three years. And including the ones administering the system to others, thus doing away with corrupt political systems, complacency and stagnation.

    But my solutions for real radical change, not just another bandaid, will fall on many deaf ears because the fact of the matter is, people are complacent and well trained in their tokenism, their acceptance and celebration of privilege, and this ownership society we live in. People are chained by the lie that they must depend upon the system in order to live, be happy and enjoy life. And people have been taught to fear sharing with others, having tolerance, self-reliance, trust and openness to receiving the kindness of strangers.

    And maybe, just maybe, by even offering some solutions, however much others may disagree with them, will spark solution-oriented thoughts instead of circular ones that go nowhere.

    “Talk of our enlightened days and our emancipated country, pure nonsense! We are firmly held with the self-fashioned chains of slavery.Yes, now I see that they are self-fashioned, and must be self-removed.” ~Beauchamp