After a failed gubernatorial bid, a change of heart and a crowded primary, Mayor Paul Soglin is only one election away from serving a ninth term as Madison’s highest ranking city official.

Soglin’s legacy casts a shadow over Madison’s city government that is nearly impossible to ignore. After serving three terms on Madison’s City Council and 22 years as its mayor, Soglin has made himself a fixture in the city’s progressive politics for nearly half a century.

Many describe Madison as a blue bastion in an otherwise red-leaning state, and Soglin’s career as a politician and activist is clearly emblematic of that sentiment. Soglin acted as treasurer of the University of Wisconsin’s chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the major American Civil Rights Movement organizations of the 1960s. He played a major role in protests and activism against the Vietnam War, even getting arrested at the first Mifflin Street Block Party, then a rallying point for Madison’s anti-war movement. Historically, Soglin comes off as progressive — as a man who recognizes his privilege and uses it to advocate for the oppressed.

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Stark racial disparities and lackluster activism make questioning the legitimacy of Madison’s liberal identity quite easy. Similarly, one only needs to look at Soglin’s reelection campaign website to realize his commitment to equality and diversity seems to be more about appearances than valuable representation.

Like other candidates, Soglin’s website hosts a list of his accomplishments during his time as mayor. The list is broken up by headings such as “Protecting Our Environment” and “Food Policy.” The accomplishments are sorted under the appropriate heading. But the heading “Diversity in City Government” simply features a list of hires in Soglin’s administration that are not heterosexual white men. Rather than focusing on valuable representation and inclusion, Soglin uses his privilege to emphasize an unfortunate reality in all systems of power — tokenism.

By definition, tokenism results in misguided attempts at diversity — attempts that give the appearance of equality whether or not true equality is ever achieved.

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By boasting the demographics of the deputy mayors — “three women (one is a Latina) and an African American male” — and other hires, including “… a lesbian, an Asian male, African American male and two white males,” the Soglin campaign treats diversity as an amplifier for positive public image rather than an ongoing effort toward inclusion. The language suggests Soglin should be rewarded and celebrated for hiring people of different demographics when that is simply the correct, normal thing to do.

Symbolically checking diversity off of a list is not enough when it comes to inclusion in government. It is the institutional equivalent of the excuse “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend!” or believing to be an ally of the LGBTQ+ community because one associates with a gay person. They mean well, but the sentiment is hollow and does nothing to challenge oppressive systems. Rather, they give a false sense of accomplishment and limit productive efforts to improve inclusion and celebrate valuable representation. It is objectifying, uncomfortable and highly problematic.

The climate of the mayor’s office is hard to pinpoint from an outsider’s perspective. Hopefully, the members of Soglin’s staff feel truly included and valued for the skills they offer — and they very well might. But just as diversity and inclusion are delicate topics, so is the language used to describe them. In this cultural and political moment, it is imperative politicians recognize the power they have to shift the conversation surrounding inclusion. When one is not careful, as in Soglin’s case, they can shift the conversation towards tokenism, rather than valuable representation. In essence, they shift the conversation backward rather than forward.

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Despite its longstanding activist mayor, Madison has a long ways to go when it comes to tokenism versus valuable representation, as do many political institutions within federal, state and municipal governments. Regardless of who wins the election April 2, it is crucial Madison’s mayor focuses on valuable representation rather than fulfilling a diversity quota and uses their language to accurately reflect those efforts.

Abigail Steinberg ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science and journalism.