The Unbearable Whiteness of Congress

The 114th Congress may be the most diverse ever, but it’s still 80 percent white male, and 92 percent Christian. Why our elected officials (still) look nothing like us.

01.08.15 10:45 AM ET

Cue the confetti: The new Congress sworn in on Tuesday is the most diverse in our nation’s history!

That would truly be a milestone to celebrate—until you see what that record “diversity” actually means. Ready? The breakdown of the 114th Congress is 80 percent white, 80 percent male, and 92 percent Christian.

That’s really diverse if, say, you are comparing our new Congress to the white supremacist group House Majority Whip Steve Scalise once addressed. It’s like Congress is stuck in a time warp: While our calendars read 2015, theirs reads more like 1955.

Look, I don’t care if you are a liberal or a conservative. It’s impossible to make the claim that our Congress accurately reflects the demographics of our nation. And it’s not missing by a little but a lot. If Congress accurately reflected our nation on the basis of race, about 63 percent would be white, not 80 percent. Blacks would hold about 13 percent of the seats and Latinos 17 percent.

But what do we really see? The new Senate has only two black senators. That statistic is even more striking given that earlier this week the first black person ever elected to the Senate, Edward Brooke, was laid to rest. Brooke won his seat in 1966 and served two terms. How far has Congress really evolved on race when in 50 years it has gone from one black senator to two? (Even the arguably more democratic House is only at 10 percent black members.)

Latinos, the fastest growing minority group in America, are even more underrepresented in Congress. They hold 3 percent of the Senate and a little over 7 percent of the House.

And let’s look at religion. Congress is now 92 percent Christian, resembling more to a papal enclave than our religiously diverse nation. The latest Pew Poll found that nearly 20 percent of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic, or not being affiliated with any religion. Yet there’s only one member of Congress, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who openly acknowledges she's not a member of any religious group.

OK, let’s put race, ethnicity, and religion aside and address the most glaring underrepresentation in Congress of any group: women. This Congress will welcome more women than ever before at 19 percent of the House and 20 percent of the Senate. So what percentage of America is female? It’s 51 percent.

Even internally in the House, women are not getting their fair shake. While 19 percent of the House is female, just one woman will get to chair one of its 20 committees.

There are various reasons—some rather complex, some rather base—why our Congress doesn’t come close to reflecting the demographics of our nation. One that affects all the groups is that Congress moves slowly, and I don’t mean just on passing legislation. Historically the reelection rate for members of Congress is in the area of 95 percent. The benefits of incumbency are quite potent, especially in the all-important area of raising campaign funds. This is likely the single biggest reason why you don’t see Congress evolve demographically more quickly. (Term limits could be a prescription to speed change along.)

Minority communities also have had to deal with the issue of “racial gerrymandering,” where congressional districts are designed either to dilute the strength of a minority community, known as “cracking,” or over-concentrate them, known as “packing.” While “packing” will lead to the guarantee of a few seats in Congress, it also can reduce the opportunities for minority candidates, says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the Latino group NALEO. Finding the “sweet spot” between packing and cracking, he says, is central to creating more districts that provide minorities the opportunity to be elected to Congress.

And then comes the issue of women in Congress. The United States now ranks 98th in the world for the percentage of women serving in its national legislature, behind Indonesia and Kenya.

Why are so few women serving in our Congress? Studies have offered us a few reasons, some contradictory. One found that women have less interest in seeking elected office, with 48 percent of the men surveyed having considered a career in politics but only 35 percent of women. Partly this was due to women receiving less encouragement to go into politics and having lower self-confidence about running for Congress.

But in the case of black women, another study found no lack of interest. Rather, black women are not recruited to run because party bigwigs view them as being less electable and less likely to raise the campaign dollars needed to mount an effective campaign than white women or men.

With all that said, representation of each of these respective communities has increased in the new Congress. But as Vargas noted, “Progress never comes fast enough.”

So what would happen if our Congress accurately, or at least more closely, reflected our nation’s demographics? Would our Congress be less dysfunctional? That feels like the old Catskills joke that ends with the punch line “It can’t get any worse!”

But people in the underrepresented groups might see Congress as truly being representative of who they are and their views, as opposed to seeing it as an institution still dominated by the old guard. That could (possibly) lead to a Congress that’s more responsive. And that’s good for all of us, regardless of our race, religion, ethnicity, or gender.