Congress Blog

Time to address Senate’s sad diversity record

As his final term in office nears its end, President Obama has moved to compile an impressive record of accomplishment for African Americans, a constituency that has never lost sight of his unique place in history as the nation’s first black president. 

He has pushed for reforming drug laws that send a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men to jails. He has condemned aggressive police practices that have led to the senseless killing of young black men. And his My Brother’s Keeper initiative continues to provide young men of color the support they need to succeed in college and the workplace. 

{mosads}But even as Obama seeks to improve the lives of African Americans and other disenfranchised communities around the country, there is disturbing news coming out of an institution right here in Washington: the United States Senate. 

A new report issued by The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies paints a picture of Congress that harkens back to more troubling times in our nation: racial and ethnic minorities comprise 7.1 percent of senior staff in the Senate, despite making up 36 percent of the United States population.

In the case of African Americans, the numbers are even more distressing.  African Americans comprise less than one percent of top staffers in the Senate, despite making up 13 percent of the nation’s population. 

The findings suggest that hiring in this most exclusive of American institutions is driven by the kind of discrimination our society has struggled to rid itself of in all sectors. To be sure, it is not the egregious discrimination of past eras when groups were explicitly told that they need not apply. Rather, it appears to be a subtle form of discrimination in which people hire other people who are like themselves. 

This not only runs contrary to the principles of fairness and equality that our nation ought to embrace. This kind of discrimination—whether in the boardroom or government—can distort agendas and result in policies that leave large numbers of Americans behind. 

This cannot be allowed to continue, particularly at a time when the United States is more diverse than ever. The Senate must begin to reflect this demographic reality. Hiring Senate staff with diverse backgrounds, competencies and experiences will help ensure that our nation’s public policy reflects the needs of all Americans. 

It is not as if there is a scarcity of minority talent. Consider, for example, the work of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc. (CBCF). For nearly thirty years, it has been preparing young African Americans for careers on Capitol Hill through programs like its Leadership Institute for Public Service

The individuals who have gone through these programs include some of the most accomplished figures in public policy, including Rushern Baker, Prince George’s County executive; Troy Clair, chief of staff to Rep. G. K. Butterfield; and Janis Hazel, communications director for the office of Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc. is not alone in trying to cultivate young people from diverse backgrounds for careers in public service. The Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative, led by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), is also working toward achieving a diversified Senate workforce. 

This is not to say that the Senate is lacking leaders in the area of employment diversity. The CBCF works closely with a number of Senators to place young people in internships and fellowships in legislative and committee offices on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, more must be done to correct the diversity gap in the Senate.  

In that context, I extend my hand in partnership to Senate leaders and ask that we work together to develop access to Senate employment opportunities for all Americans. 

Until then, it is fair to ask whether the interests of all Americans are truly being represented in our nation’s capital.

Washington is president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.

Tags Harry Reid

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video