Congress Has Decided to Stay Far Too White

The GOP-led House has eliminated the office on diversity and inclusion, maintaining a system of racial exclusion in the halls of power.

James Jones

House Republicans cheer during President Donald Trumps State of the Union address in the House Chamber on Tuesday, February 4, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Last week, Congress disbanded the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion as part of an agreement to avert a government shutdown. This decision will have serious consequences for U.S. democracy.

The House diversity office was created in March 2020 in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd — a time when institutions across this country were challenged to reckon with their exclusionary and racist histories. I am a sociologist who has been studying Congress and its insular practices for more than a decade. My book, The Last Plantation, harkens to the nickname that Congress earned for its stubborn resistance to inclusion, a resistance that this decision continues.

The mandate of the House diversity office was accountability and transparency. The office was tasked with diversifying employment through strategic outreach to underrepresented groups at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority serving institutions (MSIs), and with researching and publishing data on the racial makeup of congressional employees and testifying witnesses.

It is work that is sorely needed. Even today, as we celebrate the most diverse Congress ever, Capitol Hill remains very, very white. Though whites only constitute 60% of the population, 75% of members of Congress are white. In the House, 82% of top staffers are white and even more are in the Senate: 84%. Even the pipeline into Congress, the Congressional Internship Program, is disproportionately white — a 2021 study I published found that 76% of paid interns were white, even as white students make up only 52% of the national undergraduate population.

Congressional staff, whom the office tracked, are an invisible force in American lawmaking. They do the majority of work on Capitol Hill, from drafting legislation to providing lawmakers with critical advice. What’s more, after a few years on the Hill, staffers often go on to occupy even more influential positions within American politics, including in the executive and judicial branches, local and state politics, and in lobbying and non profit institutions. By eliminating the House diversity office, the GOP-led House is ensuring that consequential decisions for everyone in this country will continue to be made by a congressional staff that does not look like America. 

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The elimination of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion is the latest victory for conservatives and their national campaign to rollback diversity efforts. Anti-DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) legislation has passed in a dozen states, often eliminating funding for diversity and inclusion programs in state agencies and targeting public colleges and universities, restricting these schools from considering race and ethnicity in hiring and admissions. For example, Texas passed SB17, which banned DEI offices in public universities. Last week, the University of Texas at Austin unceremoniously fired 60 staff members employed in DEI roles. Florida Republicans attempted to go further, passing the Stop WOKE Act in 2022 which would, among other things, prevent diversity trainings by private employers. This law was ruled unconstitutional last month. 

Conservatives are trying to undo the last 60 years of progress, erasing anti-discrimination protections and inclusivity mandates state by state. It is an attempt to keep classrooms, workplaces and Congress white. The conservative victory in the House will have far reaching implications. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), for example, said, ODI’s dissolution is a significant setback in the conservative war on D&I, endangering the creation of policies that will promote opportunity and uplift underserved communities throughout this country.” 

Black staffers and others from underrepresented groups help write laws that better represent Americans. They also play important roles in championing underrepresented groups in constituent services and drawing attention to issues that matter to them in congressional hearings. In short, they help make sure that representative democracy is actually representative. 

For example, Shalanda Young made history in 2017 when she became the first Black staff director of the House Appropriations Committee in its 159 year history, and she currently serves as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In the House, Young was responsible for overseeing the entire appropriations process, which included negotiating around a dozen spending bills each year as well as five pandemic relief packages, totalling $3 trillion dollars. It matters that a Black woman led this process as she said in her confirmation hearing, a budget is your values.” 

During Young’s Senate confirmation hearing to lead the OMB, Democratic and Republican lawmakers lauded her intellect, work ethic and contributions to congressional lawmaking. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) praised Young as a strategic thinker” who has helped to shape many of the solutions to some of the most pressing problems.” Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer (ND), meanwhile, highlighted her specific efforts to advance major water infrastructure projects in North Dakota, his home state. However, Young is the exception: committee directors, who are crucial in congressional policymaking and often tapped for more senior roles in U.S. politics, are overwhelmingly white.

In recent years, I have spoken to hundreds of congressional staffers as part of my research. Black and Brown staffers have described how they’ve highlighted issues of racial inclusion that their white colleagues were either unaware of or unwillingly to bring up. This includes disparities in credit reporting, the importance of funding the U.S. Census Bureau for fair representation and the availability of government services in multiple languages. They also work to stop racist biases from becoming enshrined into the law. 

Since its inception in 1789, approximately 1,800 white slaveholders have been elected to the federal legislature. This figure surpasses the combined number of Black members of Congress tenfold.

This decision to close the House diversity office is sadly not surprising when placed in historical context. For most of its history, Congress was an exclusively white institution. Since its inception in 1789, approximately 1,800 white slaveholders have been elected to the federal legislature. This figure surpasses the combined number of Black members of Congress tenfold. Throughout this time, whites held a competitive advantage — shaping the rules, interests and outcomes of the nation’s chief lawmaking body. They still do.

It was not until 1995 that Hill offices finally adhered to federal workplace anti-discrimination laws. Ironically, Congress had mandated that all employers follow these regulations three decades earlier, though it was not enforced in the body that set the mandate. Even today, lawmakers and their staff have wide discretion in hiring decisions. They are accountable to almost no one. 

Because congressional recruitment is insular, without accountability or external pressure, it is easy to see how Congress remains overwhelmingly white. Typically, information about congressional job openings are shared among staff networks and vacancies are filled by individuals known to Hill insiders long before these roles are publicly advertised. Unlike many elite employers, Congress does not actively recruit for talent. Since white people are already overrepresented in staff positions, they disproportionately benefit from this arrangement. 

Racial disparities persist prominently in our society. The racial wage gap endures while racial wealth disparity continues to widen. Black, Latino and Asian Americans still often reside in segregated, underserved neighborhoods, adversely impacting their access to education, employment, healthcare and political opportunities. The lack of political representation in Congress cements barriers to racial equality and reinforces these systemic and longstanding issues. 

The strength of the United States is in its diversity. The killing of the House diversity office, and the attack on mechanisms to maintain diversity and inclusion across the country, hurt us all. But they will have a disproportionate impact on communities of color, whose voices will be muted in Congress, further harming our multiracial democracy. 

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Dr. James R. Jones is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Sociology at Rutgers University-Newark. He is also the director of the Center for Politics and Race in America. He is author of The Last Plantation: Racism and Resistance in the Halls of Congress published by Princeton University Press.

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