Tim Scott, Tokenism, and the Lessons the GOP Still Hasn't Learned

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The South Carolinian's Senate appointment might look like progress, but it's really the latest sign of a failure to modernize.

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Rep. Tim Scott and Senator Jim DeMint, who Scott will replace, in Washington on December 18 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The crumbling walls of the GOP echo chamber were woven from a series of patently false narratives. In the real world, President Bush and the Republican Congress expanded government spending, weapons of mass destruction were never found in Iraq, President Obama was born in the United States, and there is no such thing as "legitimate rape." But that's not how the story was told in the conservative bubble. The dissonance between reality and the bubble such that Karl Rove nearly imploded on election night 2012, demanding that reporters on his own propaganda platform, Fox News, retract their call that Obama had won the state of Ohio.

But far from fixing the problems, the GOP is setting out to compound them. The latest entry in the annals of GOP make-believe centers on South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's appointment of Rep. Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate. The delusion this time is that Scott's appointment will be racially "transformational" for the GOP, as Senator Lindsey Graham suggested. Haley was quick to frame it as such, calling the change a "new day," and affirming that "it is very important to me as a minority female" that "Scott earned this seat." Scott will be just the seventh African-American senator in United States history.

Less than a month ago, the GOP appointed a white man as chair of each of their nineteen House of Representatives committees, so handpicking Scott was far from a given for the party. But despite the pride and self-congratulatory back-patting coming from Republican leaders over Scott, his appointment is not the stuff of revolutions; he is a product of the same rickety anti-reality machine that helped Obama win.

A darling of the Tea Party, Scott loathes "big government" and embraces trickle-down economics. He is driven by a dogmatic approach to religion and by his success as a businessman, though his pockets are not nearly as deep as Mitt Romney's. Scott is an old-school GOP culture warrior, speaking out against women's right to choose and against gay and lesbian people's right to marry. On the heels of the Newtown tragedy, Scott's website boasts an uncompromising defense of the Second Amendment. It reads, "As Americans, we have the right to defend ourselves, our families and our property, and the federal government should never interfere with this right. I've cosponsored more than half a dozen bills protecting the rights of gun owners."

Perhaps the most troubling dimension of the GOP's post-election alternate universe is the idea that the racial voting patterns based in centuries of history and real present day policies can be overturned with a handful of high-profile minority appointments. Already Scott's elevation is being cast as tokenism by a large number of skeptics. Such accusations put the GOP on shaky ground -- but they also are sadly damaging to men and women like Scott, who are cast as undeserving beneficiaries of majority group guilt, rather than lauded for their skills, credentials, and perseverance.

That makes it worthwhile to take a closer look at what tokenism is, and what's really behind the polarized voting patterns of racial minorities.

Tokenism can take place when a member of a minority group is vastly outnumbered by people from the majority group, and those people hold power over her position or career. The members of the dominant group treat the minority individual as a representative of the minority group as a whole, and this treatment includes expectations about the individual's behavior. Chief among them: The minority individual must play a role that enhances the mission of the majority, and stay out of trouble.

Scott's policy positions prove him just as tone-deaf to the modern political world as his most conservative GOP colleagues. That makes him one of them at the same time he's a useful foil. What he won't be, however, is someone who helps the GOP win black and Hispanic voters.

The GOP's real problem is that prominent party members have cast blacks and Hispanics as deadbeats and deviants for half a century; it is the racial subtext to Republicans' demonization of dependency that in part fuels the minority aversion to casting ballots for the GOP. Newt Gingrich called Obama the "food-stamp president" during the primary season, and Romney made several efforts to strengthen racially loaded associations during the general election contest, accusing Obama of gutting the work requirements for welfare. Then, Romney's "47 percent" soliloquy was defended, tweaked, and reprised by prominent right-wingers. In the aftermath of the election, Bill O'Reilly eulogized "traditional" (read: "white") America, explaining, "It's not a traditional America anymore. People want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama." Romney himself completed the circle by suggesting after his loss that Obama won because the president gave "gifts" to blacks, Hispanics, and young voters.

Scott, Michael Steele, and Herman Cain can be seen as tokens to be brandished the next time a candidate uses a racist dog whistle during a campaign.

Against this backdrop, it's hard not to see Scott, Michael Steele, Herman Cain, and other prominent black Republicans as a carefully-selected token representatives of a purported handful of "good" black people. These individuals can be brandished, the GOP might hope, in exchange for the benefit of the doubt the next time a candidate uses a racist dog whistle during a campaign, or a hotheaded commentator blames Hispanic undocumented workers for destroying American culture.

The critical difference between a token and a legitimate representative of minorities, though, is that tokens are all hired or appointed by people who do not win many minority votes (or, in the case of Cain, are elevated by white businesspeople). Unlike Senator-designate Scott, Steele, and Cain, Obama was elected by a coalition that included a large number of people of color. The notion that he represents people of color is not a fantasy presented by the racially dominant majority, driven by stereotypes and typecasting. Instead, it is rooted in the actions of everyday people, who actually voted for him.

Another central feature of the dynamic of tokenism is the power disparity between the majority group and the minority individual. As the token is dependent on the majority group for his livelihood, he is required to reproduce the culture of the majority, not change it. Few would argue that the president has no influence on the culture of the Democratic Party, and Obama rose to prominence disregarding several of his party's dominant stances. He distinguished himself by voting against the war in Iraq, he did not wait his turn to run for president, and he leveraged social media and the Internet in an unprecedented manner during his 2008 campaign.

The Democratic Party, including Obama, is not exempt from blame for the current racial order and staying power of institutional racism. But the party is better prepared to defend itself from charges of tokenism because it is home to a range of power brokers who are not white men, and who occasionally advance unpopular positions. Most critically, its black leaders are predominantly individuals elected by coalitions of whites and minorities. (Even with the state being 28 percent black, is there anyone who thinks Scott could have won a U.S. Senate seat in South Carolina if he'd had to challenge Jim DeMint for the spot?)

The charges of tokenism levied against the GOP will stick until its most powerful representatives abandon their present views on race -- and until their voters elect more minorities to office.

A good place to start if the Republican Party genuinely wants a transformation would be by abdicating three central ideas. First, candidates and elected officials should stop suggesting that non-whites are parasites looking for handouts. The notion that African-Americans support Obama solely because he is black, or "just like them" also needs to be critically re-examined. Finally, the GOP will need to stop acting like it believes that exemplary people of color like Scott should show and teach the rest how to stop obsessing over its racially charged policies.

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Michael P. Jeffries is an assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of  Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.

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