When Diversity Is Not Enough

There will be many headlines this week about the most diverse Congress ever. Those headlines will be accurate, but misleading. While it is true that the incoming Congress will represent the largest number of women and racial minorities ever to serve in the House and Senate, overall Congress will still be 80 percent white and 80 percent male. When the bar is set so low for what is considered diverse, we are in desperate need of a critical conversation that expands our definition of what diversity and, more importantly, inclusion means. Ultimately, this discussion can provide us with a more nuanced understanding of the central ways that race and gender organize American political power and governing institutions.

What is diversity?

A simple definition of diversity is the representation of the difference. In group settings, diversity would be represented in individuals from different backgrounds that would allow them to see a set of possibilities differently. These diverse perspectives derive from aspects of an individual’s social identity and the experiences related to how they negotiate them in the social world. Social Scientists like Scott Page argue that differences in perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, and cognition, which collectively add up to what we might think of diversity, provide new insight into intelligence and ability. On the other hand, inclusion represents how we make use of that difference. Inclusion means the incorporation of those diverse perspectives into an organization’s institutional structure.

What does diversity and inclusion look like in Congress?

Congress is neither diverse nor inclusive.

First, while the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus will have their largest membership ever, people of color are still woefully underrepresented in Congress overall. Communities of color make up over one third of the American population, but represent only 21 percent of representatives and 9 percent of senators. In addition, while women continue to make gains increasing their ranks to over 100 in the next Congress, they will still only represent approximately 20 percent of the legislature despite being more than one half of the population. If Congress were to be considered diverse, it would need to more closely resemble the racial and gender demographics of America’s diverse electorate.

Second, while the membership in the House and Senate has grown more diverse each session, these gains are largely one-sided. For instance, 80 percent of lawmakers of color in the 115th Congress are Democratic. Since Republicans control both the House and Senate what diverse representatives there are in Congress are structurally locked out of positions of power and influence.  There will only be one women in Republican House leadership and none in the Senate and only a few Black and Latino Representatives will serve as the ranking member of House committees. Legal scholar, Lani Guinier, writes expansively on diversity and inclusion and cogently argues that electoral politics does not have to result in  a tyranny by the majority. Inclusion in Congress would mean that there are opportunities for racial minorities and women to influence legislative decision-making even when their political party is not in power.

Third, the lack of diversity amongst members of Congress is reproduced throughout the legislative workforce. Legislative staff are the invisible force in American lawmaking, without them much of the work of Congress could not be done. Despite this principle role, diversity is less likely to be found amongst staffers than with lawmakers. For example, in a 2015 policy paper for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies , I indicate that people of color occupy only 7 percent of top staff positions in the Senate. Comparatively, in a separate analysis of racial diversity in the House of Representatives, I find that in September 2015, 9.5 percent of all chiefs of staff working in the House of Representatives were Black; yet, 86 percent of Black chiefs of staff worked for Black Members, thus demonstrating the extent to which the congressional workplace is racially stratified and segregated. Unfortunately, women and racial minorities are missing from the most senior and influence positions in Congress and are concentrated in low to mid-level positons. Furthermore, viral photos of congressional interns illustrate how diversity is missing even from unpaid positions in Congress.  

What does diversity and inclusion look like in practice?

When journalists write about Congress as a diverse institution, they invert the ways in which race and gender power work to establish how the legislature fulfills its democratic promise.  While race and gender have always been organizing are constitutive elements of the legislature, they were not factors to dismantle racial and gender oppression, but to support it. In political science, there is a tradition among women and Black political scientists that recognizes how Congress exists as a raced-gendered institution. To this end, the limited inclusion of women and racial minorities in Congress represents only one dimension of how Congress operates as a raced-gendered institution. Gender and race are deeply interwoven into institutional structure of the Capitol, it is textually mediated in governing documents, built into its architecture and art, and reproduced daily through norms and cultural practices. Since its inception white men have occupied the dominant position in Congress and consequently the associated norms and practices for how Congress should operate have emanated from those limited perspectives. Feminist scholar Mary Hawkesworth found that although Congress expresses itself as an egalitarian institution, where all members have equal power and autonomy, operatively it functions far from those official goals. Hawkesworth found women of color had a difficult time advancing their legislative priorities in Congress, and that to achieve their goals, they had to deploy strategies that rendered them invisible. Diversity and inclusion in Congress is more than increasing the number of women and racial minorities as members, it requires rewriting the norms that undergird the conduct of legislative business.

There are many reasons why we should continue to set the bar high for Congress. Diversity in governing institutions helps to assuage group mistrust and aids marginalized communities in viewing democratic organizations as legitimate and fair. From an organizational perspective, diversity could support more innovation in legislative deliberations and bring to the table more diverse perspectives to facilitate inclusive policymaking and governing. However, to be sure racial presence does not equal racial justice and there is no guarantee that more racial minorities will lead to racial justice. Even if there were to be more women and people of color in Congress as descriptive surrogates, what matters most is that women and communities of color are substantively represented in the legislative process. In seeking substantive representation we can remove the heavy burden put upon women and people of color to act as leaders for diverse communities and rightfully begin to ask white and men legislators to shoulder in on the burden of representing diverse constituencies.

Nothing less than the boundaries of citizenship are at stake when we consider the limited diversity and inclusion of women and racial minorities in Congress. These democratic representatives model for citizens the extent that they are able to be incorporated into the American political structure and society more broadly.  While the Trump presidency will warrant robust conversations about the demographics of his administration, the proximity of white supremacists to positions of power, and polices that will harm communities of color, the inability of women and people of color to ascend in large numbers to the height of legislative power will also send a dangerous message about our commitment to democratic values.