Congress has a diversity problem
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In 2005, Rep.-elect Jennifer McClellan first began working in public service, representing Richmond in the Virginia House of Delegates. It was a space where McClellan, a Black woman who was 32 at the time, saw several stark differences between herself and the other delegates: “It was mostly white Republican men over 50,” McClellan told Women Rule.
In just over a month, the Democrat will be sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives, after winning a special election and becoming the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress. But some of the lack of diversity McClellan noticed in state government in 2005 might also plague the 118th Congress.
While more diverse than any other Congress before it, members are still much more likely than the U.S. population to be non-Hispanic white people (75 percent vs. 59 percent), according to a Pew Research study.
The amount of non-white people in Congress has been increasing steadily since the late 70s, but so has the population of non-white people in the U.S., meaning that representation is still lagging. The gap is about the same as it was in 1981.
This Congress also has more women than any before it, but women of all races also still face a representation gap: they make up roughly half of the U.S. population, while less than a third of Congress is female. And they make up a much larger share of congressional Democrats (41 percent) than Republicans (16 percent), according to a Pew Research analysis published in January.
“What continues to surprise me is how slow the progress has been,” said Drew DeSilver, a senior writer at Pew Research Center who researches women in Congress.
But diversity in Congress is more than just a percentage. It also has real effects on policy.
Research shows that lawmakers are more likely to advocate for constituents who share aspects of their identity.
“In recent years, any action that’s been done and trying to push for childcare, family leave, the care economy, which dropped out of the build back better bill, those things have really been pushed by female senators,” said Michele L. Swers, a Georgetown professor and the author of Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate. “And when you bring more diverse women into Congress, you also see them bringing their perspective of both being a minority and a woman into how they view issues.”
Michael Minta, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota who specializes in race and ethnic politics, found in his research that Black lawmakers were often more likely than other racial groups to advocate for policies that could benefit underserved communities.
Minta also noted that these differences don’t always show through on voting records, “particularly in this polarized era that we’re in,” as lawmakers usually vote along party lines.
“But when you start looking at things like going to hearings and speaking out and advocating and bringing insights and experiences to the table when people are making policies, that’s when you really see the impact of race and ethnicity,” Minta told Women Rule.
McClellan is no stranger to letting her identity shape her politics: she’s done it before as a state senator. She was especially passionate about the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which passed in the Virginia state senate in 2020, because she knew what it was like to try to balance a job and a pregnancy.
“As the first pregnant delegate, I saw how pregnant workers are not accommodated,” McClellan told Women Rule. “Those are stories that were never told before.”
She plans to keep bringing her unique perspective – including her parent’s experiences living through Jim Crow and the Depression – to the table in the House of Representatives, as Virginia joins only 22 other states in sending a Black woman to Congress.
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