As the new Congress prepares for office and members of the US House of Representatives and Senate recruit key staff, it is time for a careful consideration of the diversity that is reflected in the ranks of the Congress staff. This is especially true after an election in which the black voters were decisive for the result.
More than 70 civil rights groups, including the African American Mayors Association, the Black Futures Lab, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), have officially asked new members of Congress to increase the number of citizens to increase the number of colored staff in the middle and higher ranks of convention bureaus. Our advocacy is particularly important right now, in the period between election day and the official start of the new Congress, when most of the key workers are hired. While the diversity of senior executives has improved slightly after the 2018 elections, there has long been a lack of diversity in senior congressional officials from both parties.
The data are sobering, if not surprising. Colored people make up nearly 40 percent of the US population. However, research by the Joint Center found that blacks make up just 11 percent of Washington-based senior executives in Senate personal offices. These include positions such as chief of staff, legislative director, and communications director – the most influential staff positions in Congress.
Unfortunately, our report for 2018 also found that the house was only slightly more representative with only 13.7 percent of senior employees.
And that inequality continues to apply to Republicans, who represent large numbers of black voters, and to Democratic members, who often depend on black voters as a critical part of their electorate.
There is not a single black officer in the personal offices of the Republican senators who represent Mississippi and Louisiana, although African Americans make up a third or more of the population in these states.
While black voters made up 37 percent of Democratic voters in Virginia and 47 percent of Democratic voters in Maryland in 2016, there is not a single black person holding a senior position in the offices of the Democratic senators who represent these states.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has set a good example among Congressional Democrats. Black employees represent just over 53 percent of the CBC's top executives, compared to just 2.1 percent of senior executives in the White Democratic members of the US House of Representatives. Only 35 percent of African Americans in the United States live in districts represented by CBC members, but 78.5 percent of the top black workers in the US house are employed by CBC members.
These data are particularly worrying at a time when we desperately need more, not less, black workers who can help members of Congress better understand and respond robustly to structural inequality, racism and anti-blackness. However, there is an opportunity for change.
There will soon be at least 60 new members of the US House of Representatives, and there could be up to nine new Senators. With each appointment of a chief of staff, a legislative director and a communications director, which equates to 207 leadership positions.
Far more of them should be occupied by talented African Americans. Continued progress requires that the leadership of Congress dedicate real resources. More convention bureaus should formalize diversity and inclusion plans and measure progress. All offices should focus on diversifying middle-level positions such as press secretary and legislative assistant to further strengthen the talent pool that can eventually rise to top positions.
Clearly, some members can rightly refer to black employees serving as state or district directors, or improvements in the diversity of the non-managerial staff.
But at a time when the pandemic and economic turmoil have fallen disproportionately on blacks, robust representation of black Americans in leadership positions is more important than ever.
Real progress is possible, but it requires members of Congress to vote on action on the status quo. And it demands that we hold them accountable for it.
Dr. LaShonda Brenson is a Senior Fellow on Diversity and Inclusion at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.