With new member orientation now mostly complete, the hiring season is in full swing on Capitol Hill. And after an election when racial justice was very much on the ballot, more than 70 leading civil rights groups are calling for increases in the numbers of staff of color within the mid-level and senior ranks of congressional offices.
The lack of diversity among senior congressional staff of both parties is long-standing and well-documented. People of color are underrepresented in various occupations, but a lack of diversity among top congressional staff warrants special attention given that Congress makes decisions that affect everyone in a nation of over 330 million people.
If new and returning members believe that their staffs should reflect their constituents, then now is the time for them to prove it. And there’s good reason to believe that major leaps forward are most possible in moments like this one — at the outset of a new Congress.
But first, we must be honest about the scope of the challenge.
People of color account for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, a recent study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that people of color account for just 11 percent of Washington, D.C.-based senior staff in Senate personal offices, defined as chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors.
A 2018 Joint Center report found that the House was only marginally more representative, with staffers of color comprising just 13.7 percent of senior roles. Latina/os were particularly underrepresented — accounting for 17.3 percent of the U.S. population, but only 3.8 percent of top House staff.
This inequity remains both bipartisan and regionally agnostic.
Consider that African Americans account for 38 percent of Mississippi’s population and 33 percent of Louisiana’s population, but not one of the 12 top staff positions in the offices of the Republican senators who represent these states.
Conversely, in 2016, Black voters accounted for 37 percent of Virginia’s Democratic turnout and 47 percent of Maryland’s Democratic turnout. Yet again, there is not a single Black person among the 12 top positions in the Washington-based offices of the four Democratic senators who represent these states.
We see similar trends among both white Democratic and Republican House members. For example, our 2018 report showed just 7.7 percent of the senior staff for white Democratic House members were people of color, despite constituencies that average more than one-third people of color.
Now consider the events of 2020. From police killings of Black Americans to a COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the jobs and lives of Black and Brown people, the need for policymakers and staff who understand structural inequality, racism and anti-Blackness is as clear as it has ever been.
Against this backdrop, the overwhelmingly white senior congressional aides reflect the entrenched nature of systemic inequality.
To be sure, some members may point to a few individual staffers of color they hold in high regard, such as a constituent director or even a district or state director. While these individuals are important, their existence does not justify the lack of racial diversity in the critical, Washington D.C.-based roles of chief of staff, legislative director, or communications director.
Thankfully, the members of the incoming 117th Congress find themselves with a real and significant opportunity to lead.
Capitol Hill will soon welcome at least 55 new House members and up to nine new senators. Each will hire three senior staff in their Washington, D.C., offices, which equates to 192 top positions. And this doesn’t account for other staff departures and vacancies, and important mid-level staff positions like legislative assistants and press secretaries.
The 116th Congress demonstrated progress on which this year’s new legislators can build. Following the 2018 general election, the Joint Center found that 20 percent of senior personal office staff among new House members were people of color, which outperformed the previous House members.
This year’s class can and should do even better. But that will happen only if members clearly and intentionally prioritize diversity.
Members should prioritize diversity alongside a staffer’s home-state connection. More offices should formalize their diversity and inclusion plans and consistently measure progress. And members who fail to hire diverse top staff should place several staff of color into mid-level positions that feed into top positions.
Congressional leadership must also allocate resources accordingly. For example, the U.S. Senate should follow the lead of the House and set up a bipartisan diversity office to help all senators track progress and improve staff diversity.
We know that representation matters. And we know that the current Congress is falling short. Yet, in moments like these, Congress can take an enormous leap forward. But only if members choose to do so.
Brenson is the senior fellow for diversity and inclusion at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.