40 years ago, Sam Greenlee’s novel and 1973 film adaptation, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, examined racial issues in the United States; many of its key points remain relevant today. At the time, very small gestures were being made in an attempt to appease the Black community. Token representatives were granted access to high level positions in the U.S. government as “proof” that the country was equal for all. In the film, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is forced by an image-conscious senator to accept a group of Black recruits. The protagonist, Dan Freeman, is the only member of the group to pass all of the tests, despite White agents’ numerous attempts to sabotage him.
The film’s treatment of issues surrounding inclusion and exclusion is still especially poignant. For example, currently the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) trumpets a 17.8 percent Black workforce in government. This figure is higher than the estimated 13.5 percent of U.S. citizens who are Black. On the surface, it seems African Americans are making strides in employment representation. However, a deeper examination reveals that Blacks are seriously underrepresented as you climb higher up the ladder of authority. The House of Representatives has 45 Black members of its total 435 seats, which is only 10.3 percent. In the U.S. Senate, there have only been eight Black members in history. The first, Hiram Revels, was elected in 1870 during Reconstruction. Currently, Tim Scott is the sole Black senator. This fact suggests that there is still a certain amount of pageantry associated with how Black Americans occupy space within the government. Surface improvements disguise ongoing power discrepancies.
Admittedly, the President of the United States and “leader of the free world” is now Black, so it can be argued that no opportunity is too far from reach for a Black man in America. Still, there seem to be inequities in African American representation in authoritative government positions. Just as Freeman in The Spook Who Sat by the Door was promoted to be the first Black CIA operative in the history of the agency, only to be relegated to the position of “reproductions section chief” (copy boy), the numbers touted by OPM do not give the full picture of work opportunities available to Black federal employees, and there is still some semblance of tokenism at play.
by Elliott Anderson