I am a white man working in progressive politics in Brazil, a country in which 63% of elected representatives in Congress are white men – a group that makes up just 22% of the population.
Looking around the world, the huge overrepresentation of this one group in Brazilian politics is hardly unusual. In the US, white men make up 78% of members of Congress, and they comprise 60% of elected representatives in the European Parliament. In countless other countries, both developing and developed, political inequalities along race and gender lines are visible at all branches and levels of government.
Representative democracy is intended to allow citizens to elect the people who best represent them – but the truth is that not all candidates stand an equal chance.
Even when the pool of candidates is diverse enough to reflect the population in a balanced way, an elite group of candidates are typically the only ones with real chances of winning. What puts would-be elected representatives in this group? Their wealth, their higher levels of formal education, the endorsements of local or national media players and businesspeople, and the support they get from already established politicians. It’s not by chance that so many white men running for office turn up in this cohort along with their many competitive advantages: time and again, their race and gender is a factor in their unequal access to resources such as these.
It’s not hard to trace the impact of political inequalities on so many other inequalities we see around the world, and the political failures to devise effective solutions to them. Even the best prepared and most well-meaning white male politician will never get close to fully appreciating hardships faced by women, people of colour and ethnic minorities, or understanding their needs. If we are serious about building governments and policies that serve everyone and prioritise the most disadvantaged, we must build ways to increase diversity among policy-makers.
So what is the most important role white men can play in politics today? The short answer: to help elect more people who are not white men.
This can be done in four ways.
1. Support the electoral campaigns of women, people of colour and members of ethnic minorities
This is the first and easiest way for white men to play a significant role in politics today – be it through volunteer work or donations. Although most people have never supported an electoral campaign, those who have already done so will know how any help at all can make a big difference. I am a co-founder of Bancada Ativista (Activist Caucus), an independent movement focused on electing activists to public office in Brazil. Working together with other similar movements that together make up the Ocupa Política (Occupy Politics) coalition, we focus our efforts precisely on this goal.
2. Work to change how political parties operate
Unintentionally or not, political parties often function in undemocratic ways, and are rarely led by representatives of minority groups. Only a minority of people are or would ever be willing to become a member of a political party, but those who do so have the opportunity and responsibility to open up spaces for diversity. Receiving adequate support from one’s party is crucial for many successful candidates, especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. In Brazil, as in many other countries, there are a growing number of politicians who come from minority groups who have decided to speak up about this issue and demand change from their parties.
3. Participate in campaigns to change the rules of the electoral game
The third way that white men can contribute to a more representative democracy is by participating in campaigns to change the rules of the electoral game in ways that correct historical injustices and level the playing field. On 23 May, for example, Mexico’s Congress approved a change in the country’s Constitution that will institute gender parity in all branches and levels of government. This kind of far-reaching initiative rarely happens spontaneously: it takes time, it takes a lot of public pressure, and it takes a lot of work from people operating both inside and outside institutional politics. In Brazil, a coalition bringing together civil society organisations and movements of diverse ideologies named Pacto pela Democracia (Pact for Democracy) is coordinating efforts to achieve similar goals.
4. Build self-awareness and have conversations about our privilege
The final key way that white men can help elect more people who are not white men is by building self-awareness and promoting conversations about the issue. This is true not only in an electoral context, but for any and all efforts to tackle inequalities. Whatever the context, it is never easy for us white men to truly grasp the depth and impact of the privileges we have – which is precisely why concerted efforts to understand these realities, and to bring more people on board along the way, are crucial to achieving a more equitable political landscape. From informal conversations with friends and colleagues to structured discussion groups, events and communication campaigns, every interaction helps, and every effort plays a part in the solution.
The good news is that the numbers of women, people of colour and members of ethnic minorities in government are growing around the world – but there is still such a long way to go. For this progress to continue, there most certainly will still be roles in politics for white men – backstage.
Pedro Telles is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics, and a co-founder of Bancada Ativista (Activist Caucus), an independent movement focused on electing activists to public office in Brazil.