The Shortcomings of Diversity in Congress

The 114th Congress officially began on January 6th and it is the most diverse Congress ever. There are 442 Whites, 46 African Americans, 33 Hispanics, 12 Asian Americans, and 2 Native Americans members of Congress. Noticeably, the increase in racial representation is not solely because of Democrats, Republicans are slowly diversifying their caucus. Mia Love (R-UT) became the first Black Republican woman in Congress and Tim Scott (R-SC) is the first Black elected senator from the South since Reconstruction. While the bulk of the diversity must be credited to Democrats, what is impressive is that in this new Congress freshmen African American representatives, like Bonnie Watson (D-NJ) hail from majority-white districts, providing some optimism that African Americans can run and win in non-majority minority districts Furthermore, the last election cycle saw the highest number of African Americans running for Congress. While this is the most diverse Congress there has ever been, this moment also informs us of the shortcomings of diversity.

Here are 5 reasons why the diversity in Congress is not something really to celebrate

1)    The Bar for Diversity is Set Extremely Low

Although there is a growing number of Black representatives and senators today, they are still underrepresented. There are 46 African Americans in the 114th Congress, however, there would need to be an additional 24 Black members elected to be proportional to the 13 percent of African Americans in the U.S. population. Not mention an additional 58 Hispanics, 18 Asian Americans, and 4 Native Americans. Lets not forget about women, we would need another 202 to really have a diversity party.

2)    Diversity is present but not in power

While this is the most diverse Congress, its diverse members are not in positions of power. This is mainly because Republicans are in control of both chambers, and most lawmakers of color are Democrats. Still, this means that those who are in charge of the agenda are mostly white men. In the House, out of the 21committee chairmanships, all but is not a white man. In the Senate, Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will head the committee on Aging and Energy and Natural Resources, respectively.

3)    Majority rule does not mean that minorities have no power. 

Legal scholar Lani Guinier writes cogently and expansively on this topic, expressing how

Electoral politics doesn’t have to mean a zero-sum game. It is important for minorities to be able to influence decision making for the ”democratic process” to have legitimacy. More than ever, when we are witnessing widespread protests, it is necessary for citizens to believe that that their voices can be heard even when their party is not in power.

4)    There is no real diversity amongst lawmakers or their staffs

If you think the inequality on the member level is bad, you will be shocked to know how lily white the congressional workforce is. It’s so bad that in 2006 Diversity Inc. labeled the Senate the worst employer for diversity in the country, worse than the top 50 corporations. Women of all backgrounds and men of color are concentrated in junior positions and wholly absent from the most senior and influential roles. A report by the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association in 2010 found that there were only 18 Latino chiefs of staff in the House and it would nearly 212 years to reach equity given the pace of hiring.

5)    There are limits to descriptive representation

Congressional scholars often debate the merits of descriptive representation, or if constituents benefit from having a member of Congress of the same racial or gender identity. There is some pretty good evidence that minority representatives do things differently. For instance, Michael Minta found that black lawmakers are more involved in committee hearings related to racial justice and social welfare policy than white lawmakers by testifying during committee proceedings and preparing questions for witnesses.

Yet, I must caution us from believing too much in the myth of the “Magical Negro”. For one, it is unfair to hold one member of Congress to higher ethnical standards based upon the color of their skin. And while African American legislators will perhaps be sympathetic to issues of race because they too are people of color, they are also politicians who need to get elected and they too will compromise. (Read this as the future blog post- The CBC is not perfect and has flaws.) Second, when we talk about issues of diversity, we often mean increasing the number of racial minorities so they can handle minority issues, but this is not only stigmatizing and tokenizing, but it abdicates white lawmakers’ responsibility to help communities of color. When House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) statedemphatically that he is not racist, I thought great, but what I really need for you to tell me is how are you anti-racist? How is your legislative agenda going to improve communities of color? And please spare your standard talking points or a universal agenda that will not effect decades of cumulative disadvantage in part shaped by the institution you now help to lead.

There is a symbolic value in having more racial minorities in Congress that I think is important, however, racial presence does not equal racial justice. More than ever, we need a substantive agenda that recognizes the diversity of the nation. With all the pomp and circumstance around this new Congress, you will probably be inundated with the “diverse” faces of Congress, but remember if you were to average all the faces of Congress together, the results would not resemble Mia Love, it would like a less tanned version of Speaker John Boehner.


This blog was originally written on January 12, 2015.