Racial representation: A solution to inequality in the People’s House
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The lack of racial representation in the U.S. Congress has gained widespread public attention in recent years.

In 2015, I conducted the first racial census of the legislative workforce in more than a decade. Examining the backgrounds of top staffers in the U.S. Senate, I found people of color occupied only 7 percent of important positions like chiefs of staff and committee staff directors, despite being more than one-third of the American population. 

Since then, there has been additional coverage on the lack of racial representation among legislative interns, as well as across many positions in the Senate. As Senate minority leader, Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerFCC advances proposal to unmask blocked caller ID in threat cases Trump: Pelosi's leadership good for the GOP Live coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill MORE of New York has become an outspoken advocate for diversity in the Senate workplace as this controversy widens. He has built on the successful work of his predecessor, Harry ReidHarry ReidDems see surge of new candidates Dems to grind Senate to a halt over ObamaCare repeal fight GOP fires opening attack on Dem reportedly running for Heller's Senate seat MORE, by continuing the Senate Diversity Initiative, and called for the implementation of the Rooney Rule to increase racial representation.

The Rooney Rule is an initiative by the National Football League (NFL) to increase racial diversity among head coaches, by requiring the inclusion of a person of color in interviews for vacant positions. In a recent editorial, the Rooney Rule, which I have previously recommended as a part of a comprehensive strategy, was propositioned as the lead strategy to fix this decades-old problem. Studying racial inequality in the congressional workplace for almost a decade, I have come to understand that any meaningful reform must include modifications to the legislature’s institutional structure. 

But Congress is not like a football team. Although legislative politics sometimes resembles a combat sport, where one side must bludgeon the other for a victory, the two are fundamentally different. In the NFL, the main goal is to secure a win after four exhaustive quarters, and maybe even earn the Lombardi trophy at the Super Bowl. In legislative politics, the prize is power, majority leadership and more elusively democracy itself. Just as it is inappropriate and wrong to apply business principles to run the federal government en masse, so is it when it comes to improving racial representation in governing institutions. Interacting with Congress requires specific strategies.

While the legislative workplace resembles many other professional environments, it is distinguished by the power imbued in the institution itself, especially as it pertains to race. 

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For example, Congress established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as a part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to remove racial and gender barriers from the American workplace. Among the responsibilities of the EEOC is to collect demographic data from firms about their employees, an important tool to hold organizational leadership accountable for hiring women and people of color. However, there is no equivalent set of rules in place requiring members of Congress to report the racial and gender demographics of their staffs.

 

It is exemptions like this that led the late Sen. John Glenn to infamously label Congress “The Last Plantation.” As he explained, it was like a doctor prescribing medicine to a patient that he would not take. The double standard that Congress practices, mandating firms to collect demographic data on their employees but exempting this rule for lawmakers themselves, is a key way that racial inequity is produced in the legislative workplace.

I advocate as a primary recommendation that members of Congress collect and publish demographic data on its employees. Congress should follow the same set of rules that it imposes on others. The lack of data on this issue prevents this problem from moving beyond the Beltway boundaries. It ensures that diverse constituencies never know that their elected officials do not hire senior staffers who look like them. Constituents, campaign donors and democratic stakeholders should all force federal lawmakers to act more transparently. This recommendation is tied to a large body of research in legislative studies that constantly finds lawmakers are motivated by the goal of winning re-election.

In short, with data there can be accountability. 

As we learned over the last two years, since the controversy began, lawmakers respond differently when they are held accountable with empirical data. However, acquiring demographic data on congressional staffers is almost impossible.

Over the past few years, I tried numerous survey and in-person approaches to gather such information and encountered much opposition and resistance. Countless congressional offices told me they could not provide such “private” information, likely “allies” were often unresponsive, and a few legislative staffers even questioned my research, sometimes with vitriol. These challenges indicate that what is behind such pervasive inequality on Capitol Hill is a workplace that operates in secrecy. 

To be sure, the “Rooney Rule” might help increase racial diversity in the legislative workplace. This new rule would challenge pre-existing norms that govern an informal hiring process. However, the rule only asks that a person of color be interviewed for a vacant position — it would do nothing to stop those in positions of power from hiring their ideal candidate and conducting interviews with applicants of color as a formality. More importantly, the congressional version would not come with the necessary enforcement mechanisms as in the NFL, which has the power to penalize and fine teams for not meaningfully following the rules.

Alas, the central issue here is about power, not jobs. The real question we must ask is, do we agree with the way that power is organized and distributed in Congress?

The presence of diversity alone is not sufficient in an institution that has historically maintained the practice of underrepresented members and staff personnel. As legal scholars Lani Guinier and Martha Minow argue, we must change institutional structures and culture or new people brought into the organization will just reproduce and legitimatize new forms of marginalization. 

The need to remake the congressional workplace represents an exciting challenge and an opportunity for Congress to live up to the democratic ideals it purports. Congress should go further than NFL teams and corporations to improve diversity and model how fair and equal employment is an essential component of citizenship. A diverse legislative workplace adds legitimacy, and signals to constituents that their diverse experiences matter and are brought to bear in legislative deliberations. Moreover, by recruiting and hiring political professionals from underrepresented racial backgrounds and life experiences, Congress can establish its workforce as more competitive by incorporating greater heterogeneity among staffers.

Congress will be able to harness the dividends of diversity with more innovative policy solutions to grapple with its complex and growing responsibilities. These efforts might help to repair the failed image of Congress and create a new class of citizens interested in public service.

The challenge before us is how Congress can use its jobs to strengthen our democracy and affirm its image as a symbol of our representative government. 

 

James Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University–Newark. Follow him on Twitter @blackcapitol


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