The Triumph of Tokenism: The Voting Rights Act and the Theory of Black Electoral Success

79 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2012 Last revised: 15 Mar 2012

Date Written: 1991


For almost two decades, the conventional civil rights political empowerment agenda of black activists, lawyers, and scholars has focused on the election of black representatives. The belief that black representation is everything has defined litigation strategy under the Voting Rights Act. Through judicially enforced spurs to black electoral success, black voters gain political self-confidence and legislative influence.

A set of submerged premises and assumptions concerning the goals and strategies for achieving black equality underlie this empowerment agenda. Through use of what I characterize as "the theory of black electoral success," this article identifies, organizes, and presents these related propositions. In black electoral success theory, empowerment is obtained through meaningful enfranchisement, which exists where blacks are elected. The theory thus promotes the election of individual black representatives as spokes models f or political e quality. Simply by virtue of election opportunities, black electoral success advances civil rights enforcement, government intervention on behalf of the poor, and black "role-model" development.

Although pervasive and influential, the theory of black electoral success has not been explicitly endorsed as a strategy nor articulated as a coherent conceptual model. Neither political science nor legal academic literature has provided voting rights lawyers, courts, or activists with a clear theoretical understanding of their project. Instead, black electoral success has been pursued somewhat unselfconsciously as the inchoate rationale and frame of reference for black political and legal empowerment

In this article, my goal is to organize the divergent themes of black electoral success strategy with in one conceptual framework in order to give the themes more cogency and attention. Having exposed the existence of a coherent theory, I then argue that the theory posits many of the correct goals but fails to provide a realistic mechanism for achieving them. The article proceeds in three Parts. In Part I, I develop the ideological and statutory roots of black electoral success theory. In Part II, I analyze the inadequacies of current voting rights litigation and its failure to realize the statute's original goals. I conclude in Part III by arguing that contemporary Pre-occupation with black electoral success stifles rather than empowers black political participation for three reasons.

First, black electoral success theory romanticizes black elected officials as empowerment role models. By ignoring problems of tokenism and false consciousness, the theory promotes black electoral success in order to legitimate the ideology of "equality of opportunity."

Second, even in jurisdictions with proportionate black representation, black electoral success has neither mobilized the black community nor realized the promised community-based reforms. As an empowerment mechanism, electoral control of winner-take-all majority-black districts ignores critical connections between broad-based, sustained voter participation and accountable representation. In addition, although it claims legitimacy as a practical enforcement mechanism of the original goals of the civil rights movement, district based electoral ratification enforces only one of three original goals. While the current approach may result in the election of more black officials, it ignores the movement's concern with broadening the base of participation and fundamentally reforming the substance of political decisions

Third, the theory assumes that majority winners rule legitimately, even where such rule leads to permanent minority losers. The theory responds to minority disadvantage not by challenging majority rule but by providing a few electoral districts in which blacks are the majority.8 Consequently, black electoral success theory simply recon-figures winner-take-all electoral opportunities into geographically based, majority-black, single-member districts. Representing a geographically and socially isolated constituency in a racially polarized environment, blacks elected from single-member districts have little control over policy choices made by their white counterparts. Thus, although it ensures more representatives, district-based black electoral success may not necessarily result in more responsive government.

In Part III, based on my critique of the black electoral success theory, I put forth suggestions for a different approach to voting rights reform. Relying on what I tentatively call "proportionate interest representation"9 for self-identified communities of interest, I propose to reconsider the ways in which representatives are elected and the rules under which legislative decisions are made.

Keywords: VRA, race, electoral process, voting rights

Suggested Citation

Guinier, Lani, The Triumph of Tokenism: The Voting Rights Act and the Theory of Black Electoral Success (1991). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 89, p. 1077, 1991, Available at SSRN:

Lani Guinier (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 300
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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