It's not just Trump's Cabinet but Congress lacks diversity

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I vividly remember the election of women to the U.S. Senate because there were so few.  Margaret Chase Smith in 1960  was the first woman elected who ran against another woman.  Her record of 24 years was surpassed by Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiClinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns Gore wishes Mikulski a happy birthday at 'Inconvenient Sequel' premiere MORE and then by Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Blumenthal: ‘Credible case' of obstruction of justice can be made against Trump MORE and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDemocrats turn on Al Franken VA slashes program that helps homeless veterans obtain housing: report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE.  I’ve lived in four states but never had a woman as my senator.  I was very impressed when California was the first state to elect two women to the Senate in 1992.  Women in the senate, and the House of Representatives, were important role models in showing me and other girls that would could have powerful positions in government. 

Even with the confirmation of Betsy DeVos Tuesday, President Trump’s cabinet has the least women and minorities since President Reagan in contrast to the  115th Congress -- the most diverse in our history with increases in the number of women of color, a record number of 21 women in the Senate, and a record number of 38 Hispanic officials. Religious diversity also will increase with the addition of three representatives who identify as Hindu.

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But let’s not celebrate the diversity of the 115th Congress too soon. By comparing the demographic characteristics of members of congress to the U.S. population, we can see how the 2016 election reflects the diversity of our country.  Starting with gender, the U.S. census of 2010  shows that women constitute 51 percent of the population yet only 19 percent of Congress (104 of 535).  For the numbers in Congress to align with the gender composition of the country, we would need to elect 158 more women.

People of color comprise 34 percent of the U.S. population and 19 percent of the Congress. African Americans and Asian Americans are represented more equitably than Hispanics with 49 and 15 respectively serving in Congress.  African American elected officials would need to increase by 20 and Asian American by 12  to be proportional to the population. The number of Hispanics in office would need to more than double, from 38 to 85, for their numbers to be proportional with demographics.

Turning to religion, Christians are over-represented in the U.S. Congress with 495 of the 535 members (92 percent) whereas nationally Christians are only 70 percent of the population. And 6 percent of the members identify with other religions (30 are Jewish, 4 Hindu, 3 Buddhist, and 2 Muslim).  The greatest disparity is those with no religious affiliation represented by one member of Congress. This segment of the population nationally is nearly 23 percent.

Congressional representatives who identify as LGBT number 7, the same as in the last Congress. This represents 1 percent of Congress. Recent studies find that the LGBT population nationally is 4 percent so the number of LGBT congressional members would need to increase to 21 for this group to be proportional.

Although we cast our votes for people who share our views on issues, I believe that it is important to have a U.S.Congress that looks more like the population of the U.S.  Congress is a system of shared power where representatives negotiate and compromise in order to enact legislation. I have no doubt that people with different life experiences, from different backgrounds bring different viewpoints.

The new faces in Congress bring an array of diverse experiences.  Imagine what first generation and new Americans can bring to discussions of immigration reform.  Sen. Kamala Harris’s parents were born in Jamaica and India. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Raja Kishnamoorthi were born in India, Rep. Stephanie Murphy was born in Vietnam, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth in Thailand.  Two of the newly elected senators have extensive service in the legal sector, having served as state attorney generals, Kamala Harris in California and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada.

Duckworth, a veteran, is very interested in military aid and policies involving the Middle East.  Harris and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) have worked in regulating commerce and financial institutions, environmental justice, energy efficiency and water conservation. Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), the first Dominican American elected to Congress, brings expertise in affordable housing, rent control, and protecting small businesses.  

President Obama in his farewell address called upon Americans to be active citizens.  “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.  All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding out democratic institutions.”  He further urged, “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”  

My goal for America is one of shared power where people of different religions, sexualities, ethnicities and races are all represented at the table.  We need to start now to get people from many backgrounds who represent different life experiences and bring diverse sets of expertise to run for office in the next election.  2018 is around the corner.

Patricia MacCorquodale is a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project. Her research focuses on women’s careers in science, engineering and legal professions, gender and human sexuality and educational aspirations and achievement.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.