In early December, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies led by Spencer Overton, released a devastating report on staff diversity in the United States Senate.
“African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 0.9 percent of top Senate staffers,” the report found.
The Joint Center was careful to focus on senior staff positions in their Senate staff study. On January 5, the National Urban League will host a forum on Senate staff diversity on Capitol Hill. The only good news regarding the numbers on Black staff in the halls of power in Capitol Hill is on the House side.
More than 75 percent of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus have Black Chiefs of Staff. Currently, 32 members of the CBC have a Black Chief of Staff. Additionally, the Senate’s only Black Republican, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), currently employs the Senate’s only Black Chief of Staff.
In July, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan posted a photo on Instagram of over 70 Capitol Hill interns and not one was African American. Internships and fellowships on Capitol Hill are a key pipeline to building leadership experience in the halls of power.
Speaker Ryan’s Instagram image was a jarring visual of what many have known on Capitol Hill for years: That the staffs and the pipelines to get to power and be positioned for decision-making roles remains overwhelmingly White. Ironically, Ryan will have a Black Chief of Staff, Jon Burks, starting this month.
But when it comes to the number of senior staffers in Congress overall, particularly Chiefs of Staff, members of the CBC easily employ the majority. Though Black Chiefs of Staff are all but non-existent (1 percent) in the U.S. Senate, on the House side it’s a different story. Black Chiefs include Duron Marshall who is Rep. Brenda Lawrence’s (D-Mich.) Chief of Staff; Yelberton Watkins, who is Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) longtime Chief of Staff; Michael Cooper who is Rep. John Lewis’ (D-Ga.) Chief of Staff and Veleter Mazyck, who is Rep. Marcia Fudge’s (D-Ohio) Chief of Staff.
It matters who serves in the very top jobs: Those in senior staff positions have a major say in policy decisions and advise lawmakers directly. Chiefs of Staff and other senior staff members often move on to powerful well-paying jobs in the private sector.
On Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., just as in most places where there are budgets allocations to be decided on and jobs to fill, the person who makes the decision on those matters is the person with the most power and that often is not only the elected official, but also their Chief of Staff. The Chief is also the gatekeeper for resumes and hiring staff. A typical Chief of Staff on Capitol Hill earns between $120,000 and $168,000.
The conversation on hiring has been going on for years, but it was crystalized by the detailed report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
For many White Democrats in the Senate the numbers are particularly embarrassing. Several Senators, who have millions of African American constituents, have no Black senior staff members. The state with the most African Americans in the U.S. is Georgia with 3.1 African Americans according to the 2010 Census. Georgia is followed by New York (3 million), Florida (2.9 million), Texas (2.9 million), California (2.9 million), North Carolina (2 million), Illinois (1.8 million), Maryland (1.7 million), Virginia (1.5 million) and Louisiana (1.5 million).
But not one Black senior staffer from any of those states now serves on the staffs of the U.S. Senators from the above states with the largest African American populations. None of them have a Black Chief of Staff, Legislative Director, Communications Director or State Director.
On December 12, outgoing Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield released a statement on staff diversity.
“The near complete absence of African American senior staff in personal and committee offices in the Senate is not reflective of the inclusiveness ideals of our government, and of our country. The CBC has long championed African American inclusion in all industries, and launched CBC TECH 2020 last year to promote diversity in the technology industry,” said Butterfield. “But the fact that the United States Congress, an institution that was created to represent all people, still has not taken meaningful steps to increase diversity is disappointing and requires an immediate remedy.”
Butterfield continued: “There are plenty of offices hiring, on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers, where Senators and Representatives can hire talented African American candidates. Yet, from our records, with the start of the next Congress, the Senate is poised to have one African American Senate Chief of Staff and no African American staff directors, if immediate action is not taken.”
Lauren Victoria Burke is a political analyst who speaks on politics and African American leadership. Lauren is also a frequent contributor to the NNPA Newswire and BlackPressUSA.com. She can be contacted at LBurke007@gmail.com and on Twitter at @LVBurke.