In the last couple of years racial politics have dominated our political discourse. Regardless of party affiliation or racial identification, most Americans have probably grown to agree on at least one thing: There are no easy policy solutions for solving America’s racial discord and the inequality that fuels it. But I would go a step further and say this is even truer with the current Congress we have in place. While lack of bipartisanship gets most of the credit, or rather blame, for the ineffectiveness of the American Congress, new data highlight another culprit: lack of diversity among senior Senate aides.
A new report out from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that “(p)eople of color make up over 36 percent of the U.S. population, but only 7.1 percent of top Senate staffers.” While the numbers are not good for any ethnic minority population, they are abysmal for black Americans. According to the report, “African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 0.9 percent of top Senate staffers.” This is particularly troubling given how lacking in diversity the Senate already is. There are currently two African Americans serving in the U.S. Senate (Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tim Scott of South Carolina), one Asian American (Mazie Hirono of Hawaii), and two Hispanic Americans (Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.)
But lack of racial diversity isn’t the only problem plaguing Congress. Last year, for the first time in history, the majority of members of Congress reported being millionaires. This in an age in which the median wealth of America’s middle class is just over $44,000.
Now I’m not here to argue that white millionaires should be excluded from Congress. But I am here to argue that they shouldn’t comprise most of Congress.
Well for starters, ideally we should have a legislative body reflective of the people it represents. But beyond idealism, there is a very real policy deficit we face as a country when we have people who have never experienced problems firsthand, tasked with crafting solutions for those problems.
For instance, for years there has been little done at a federal level to address the issue of racial profiling or police brutality. The reason is not hard to understand: For a white member of Congress who has likely been treated with respect and deference by most members of law enforcement he or she has come into contact with, it’s easy to fathom that he would not consider this a serious or prevalent issue.
Thanks to camera phones, now many elected officials know what black Americans have known all along: There are great members of law enforcement, but there are also far too many who abuse their power and position. Just think for a moment how many lives may have been saved if elected officials, either from their own experiences, or the experiences of their senior aides, had known to prioritize this issue years ago. It is not a coincidence that a black senator, Tim Scott, has been a driving force behind efforts to secure additional federal funding for body cameras for law enforcement to help address this issue.
Similarly, it is not a coincidence that President Obama has made college accessibility and affordability legislative priorities during his time in elected office. Neither he nor his wife came from wealthy backgrounds, and financial aid enabled them both to attend elite universities that allowed them entrée into the halls of power in which they now reside. Is it possible that another president could have been knowledgeable on this issue? Sure. But consider this: Gov. Mitt Romney, President Obama’s opponent in the last presidential election, came from a wealthy and prominent family, so he never endured the hardship of not knowing whether he would graduate college because of his financial status—something I and millions of other Americans have endured.
To be clear, the issue of diversity, or rather lack thereof, within the Senate is not party specific. The Joint Center report notes that while African Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic, black Americans comprise just .7 percent of top Democratic Senate posts. It could be argued that lack of diversity among Senate aides is even more problematic than lack of diversity among elected officials because senior aides do much of the heaving lifting when it comes to actually writing legislation. So what can be done to change things?
For starters, elected officials and the parties that support them need to make a concerted effort to diversify their internship pools. As someone who started her career as an intern, I speak from experience when I say it is not uncommon to see the most plum internships for prominent candidates and in prominent offices become a resting place for the children of political donors and their friends. These internships can often serve as a pipeline to jobs in the Senate or the White House down the road.
Additionally, both major parties need to begin setting aside some of the money they reserve for attack ads on each other for money to be spent on well-paid racial and class diversity fellowships. Very few young people, except the children of wealthy donors or the wealthy period, can afford to work on campaigns for next to nothing and live with the financial instability early campaign life provides.
But I would say the real responsibility falls into the hands of those of us who claim we’re fed up with our do-nothing Congress. If we’re not happy with them, simply threatening to throw them out during the next election cycle is not enough. We should be asking them the right questions while they’re there representing us. But how many of us bother to ask who our elected officials hire once they get in office? And whether those people are representative of us and have our best interests at heart? In the same way we demand our elected officials keep us updated on their legislative accomplishments, why don’t we demand more regular transparency on who they are surrounding themselves with?
For anything to really change, more of us fed up non-millionaires need to be willing to run for office, or encourage someone we trust to. Or at the very least we need to tell as many bright, young people from underrepresented groups that we can that if they really want to make a difference instead of just expressing outrage on social media, they should become a Senate aide.