BRENSON: Black Voters Should See Themselves in Congressional Staff

Two new Democratic senators from Georgia will soon take office thanks to overwhelming turnout from Black voters. At the same time, the mob violence on Capitol Hill — and law enforcement’s yielding to it — has placed an unmistakable spotlight on continued racial injustice.

From voting rights to criminal justice reform, Black voters have made their voices heard and they expect action. But for far too long they’ve been forced to pressure a Congress with too few Black members and far too few Black staffers.

Top congressional staff shape the agenda, write legislation, and advise members and senators. And we should expect that these key staff also reflect the diversity of the voters.

While we saw marginal improvement in senior staff diversity after the election in 2018, the lack of diversity among senior congressional staff of both parties is longstanding.

The data is sobering, if not surprising.

Dr. LaShonda Brenson
Dr. LaShonda Brenson

People of color account for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, Joint Center research found that people of color account for just 11 percent of Washington, D.C.-based senior staff in Senate personal offices. These include positions like chief of staff, legislative director, and communications director — the most influential staff positions in Congress.

Unfortunately, our 2018 report also found that the House was only narrowly more representative with staffers of color comprising just 13.7 percent of senior roles.

And this inequity remains true for Republicans who represent large numbers of Black voters and for Democratic members who often depend on Black voters as a critical component of their electorate.

There’s not a single Black senior staff member in the personal offices of the Republican senators who represent Mississippi and Louisiana, despite the fact that African Americans account for a third or more of the population in these states.

Similarly, though Black voters made up 37 percent of Democratic voters in Virginia in 2016, and 47 percent of Democratic voters in Maryland, there’s not a single Black person holding a senior staff position within the offices of the Democratic senators who represent these states.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is leading by example among congressional Democrats, with Black staff representing just over 53 percent of CBC top staff — compared to just 2.1 percent of the senior staff of White Democratic members of the U.S. House. Only 35 percent of African Americans in the United States live in districts represented by CBC members, but 78.5 percent of the Black top staff in the U.S. House are employed by CBC members.

This data is particularly troubling at a time when we desperately need more, not fewer, Black staff who can advise members of Congress in better understanding and responding robustly to structural inequality, racism, and anti-Blackness.

Yet, there is an opportunity for change.

We now have 60 new members of the U.S. House and 10 new senators. With each appointing a chief of staff, legislative director, and communications director, that amounts to 210 senior positions. Far more of them should be filled by talented African Americans. The Joint Center has been tracking the race of these hires.

More than 70 civil rights groups, including African American Mayors Association, Black Futures Lab, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), have formally called on new members of Congress to increase the numbers of staff of color within the mid-level and senior ranks of congressional offices.

All politics is local, and community leaders also need to call their House member and two U.S. senators and tell them to prioritize racial diversity in hiring and promoting staff. Our advocacy is particularly important right now as members of Congress finalize staff hiring and fill open positions from staffers who have accepted jobs in the new Biden Administration.

Continued progress will require that congressional leadership bring real resources to bear. More Congressional offices should formalize diversity and inclusion plans and measure progress. And all offices should focus on diversifying mid-level positions like press secretary and legislative assistant to further bolster the pool of talent that can eventually step into top positions.

Without question, some members can rightfully point to Black staff serving as state or district directors, or to improvements in the diversity of non-senior staff.

But at a time when the pandemic and economic turmoil has fallen disproportionally on Black people, robust representation of Black Americans in senior roles matters now more than ever.

Real progress is possible, but it will require that members of Congress choose action over the status quo. And it demands that we hold them accountable for doing so.

Brenson is the senior fellow for diversity and inclusion at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

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