Theorizing a Racialized Congressional Workplace

The US Congress is a racialized governing institution that plays an important role structuring the racial hierarchy in the nation. Despite Congress’s influence, there is little theoretical and empirical research on its racialized structure – that is, how it operates and the racial processes that shape it. This lacuna has developed from a narrow conceptualization of Congress as a political institution, and it ignores how it is a multifaceted organization that features a large and complex workplace. Congressional staff are the invisible force in American policymaking, and it is through their assistance that members of Congress can fulfill their responsibilities. However, the congressional workplace is stratified along racial lines. In this chapter, I theorize how the congressional workplace became racialized, and I identify the racial processes that maintain a racialized workplace today. I investigate how lawmakers have organized their workplace and made decisions about which workers would be appropriate for different types of roles in the Capitol. Through a racial analysis of the congressional workplace, I show a connection between Congress as an institution and workplace and how racial domination is a thread that connects and animates both its formal and informal structures.


Select RACING THROUGH THE HALLS OF CONGRESS: The “Black Nod” as an Adaptive Strategy for Surviving in a Raced Institution

Although there is an impressive body of research on the U.S. Congress, there has been limited discussion about the central role race plays in the organization of this political institution. While some scholars have documented Congress’ racist past, less is known about the present significance of race in the federal legislature. Throughout the day, African Americans routinely nod to one another in the halls of the Capitol, and consider the Black nod as a common cultural gesture. However, data from over sixty in-depth interviews suggest there is an additional layer of meaning to the Black nod in Congress. From the microlevel encounters, I observed and examined, I interpret the nod as more than a gesture that occurs in a matter of seconds between colleagues or even among perfect strangers in the halls of Congress. The Black nod encompasses and is shaped by labor organized along racial lines, a history of racial subordination, and powerful perceptions of race in the post-Civil-Rights era on the meso-, and macrolevels. Using this interpretive foundation, this article will show how the nod is an adaptive strategy of Black staffers that renders them visible in an environment where they feel socially invisible. The nod becomes an external expression of their racialized professional identity. I argue that the congressional workplace is a raced political institution and that the microlevel encounters I observed delineate and reproduce its racial boundaries. This article represents perhaps the first sociological study of Congress and provides an unprecedented view into its inner workings and the social dimensions that organize workplace relationships.


Racial Diversity Among Top Senate Staff

The report is critical to understanding diversity among top staff in the U.S. Senate, including chiefs of staff, legislative directors, and communications directors in Washington, DC personal offices of U.S. Senators, as well as staff directors assigned to committees. Data reflect Senate employment in April 2015.

Key findings:

  • People of color make up over 36 percent of the U.S. population, but only 7.1 percent of top Senate staffers.

  • Latinos make up over 16 percent of the U.S. population, but only 2.1 percent of top Senate staffers.

  • African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 0.9 percent of top Senate staffers.

  • Senate offices representing states with large Hispanic and African-American populations hire few senior staffers of color.

  • While those who self-identified as Democrats nationwide were 22 percent African-American and 13 percent Latino, top Democratic U.S. Senate staff as a group is 0.7 percent African-American and 2.0 percent Latino.

  • Senators should take several steps to increase diversity.