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Should Ethnicity be the Dominant Factor in a Political Appointment? : Riordan: The new mayor has made a point of choosing diverse people to form his government, but that is not a very satisfying politics.

August 01, 1993|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden is a visiting scholar at the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Colleges and author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press)

Mayor Richard Riordan has done the right thing in striving for ethnic and gender diversity in his appointments. He has also done the political thing, rewarding residents of the San Fernando Valley, which overwhelmingly voted for him, with a larger share of commission appointments than they have recently enjoyed. Unhappily, ethnicity, gender and geographic representation seem the primary measures we use these days to judge the wisdom of political choices. What Riordan's appointees might stand for--and do in office--seem less urgent.

But ethnicity, L.A.'s most salient division today, is not a very permeable way to divide up--let alone govern--a city: You cannot join an ethnic community this week because you are worried about crime, and another next week because you need a job. You belong to this or that group because you are born into it. If city neighborhoods were settled by race, maybe we could balance a library against a homeless shelter, or a waste-disposal unit against mass transit. The truth of the matter, however, is that there isn't a neighborhood in the city that is entirely ethnically cohesive. Even South-Central is roughly 50% Latino.

Most would be extremely nervous if Riordan had surrounded himself with white males only. But the limits of ethnicity as the dominant criterion for political appointments or distributing political power need to be seriously and sensitively considered.

The importance of ethnic representation is clear. Whether we see ourselves as a melting pot or as a salad bowl, the reality of the differences in ethnic experience grow more and more apparent as we peek over the walls and glimpse other lives. For example, most perceive Asians to be a model minority but few know about the child abuse and wife battering that takes place in many immigrant homes. This matters, because public policies designed to help such families do not reach them. It would help if Asian immigrant needs were understood. But who will speak for them?

Yet, the main risk of division based on ethnicity is exclusion. The odds are that every group will not be represented, and if they are not, they are outside the political structure. They have no opportunity to explain how their differences make their needs different.

The old social contract, which balanced large and small populations, was based on property and on the assumption that those who held it had a stake in society. Today, there are many other ways we might classify ourselves, but most of them relate to economic standing. All ethnic groups are represented in all classes, and as people move up the economic ladder, they find greater acceptance. It is the iron law of our individualistic, capitalist culture. But it's not sufficient to understand that. Not today.

We need a social contract that assures diversity and something else. We need a political structure that can fit the pieces together in such a way that alliances can be made and changed, that groups can accept losing on one issue because they will win on another. A structure that gives everyone an opportunity to be at least part of the discussion, no matter how they define themselves or their interests.

At the moment--and for many wrong reasons--women cross these lines. The ability of women to transcend standard political divisions in the world and understand each other is quite remarkable, as we saw at the recent U.N. Human Rights Conference when women of all nations fought the cultural bias of some. But it is hard to imagine a political structure with a women's house and a men's house in balance.

What's needed is a division that is not determined by birth. Ideology--loosely defined as a world view--is one option. But if Riordan's appointees represent any particular ideology, it would be hard to define it, given how little we know about his appointees.

The genius of the U.S. Constitution is that it was not based on ethnicity--in contrast to most of the rest of the world, which was--and is--currently tearing itself apart over the issue. It was that difference that drew so many to America. The Founding Fathers dealt with the "ethnic problem" by limiting everyone in the social contract between urban and rural interests to white, male property owners. In Los Angeles, we need to develop a politics that recognizes the importance of ethnicity without elevating it into the only standard of governance.

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