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Jul 14 2011

Today’s edition of “totally unshocking news”

I hope you’re all sitting down, because I’m about to drop a knowledge bomb on you that will completely and irrevocably shatter your view about the way the world works:

336 Share The 2011 edition of the National Journal survey of “Hill people”—that is, high-level staffers to members of Congress—revealed something we probably already knew: Capitol Hill is really white and really male. Now, the question among some is how that indisputable fact may impact policies for women and people of color. According to the survey, which occurs every three years, fully 93 percent of top staffers on the Hill are white. Nearly 70 percent are male. While Democrats have a slightly more equitable gender ratio—62 percent male, 38 percent female—their staff is still 91 percent white.

White people disproportionately control the reins of political power!

Yes, we’re all very surprised over here at the Manifesto. It turns out that in addition to the fact that fewer than 10% of members of Congress in the United States are people of colour (PoCs), their staff members are also predominantly white. I am really ignorant about how people make it into the job of a Congress staffer, but I’d imagine it has a lot to do with lobbying, influence peddling, and favours for old acquaintances from school. Anyone who talks about affirmative action policies taking spaces away from equally-qualified white students are now invited to suck it long and deep, because this goes way beyond who gets the data entry job or the scholarship – systemic racism is placing white people and only white people in the positions of power and influence.

“Hill staff—particularly those who serve with committees—are the gatekeepers to a very important part of the democratic process,” Rockeymoore says. She says that all-white staffers often lead to “mainstream” experts being called to testify at hearings, and in this case, “mainstream” translates into “white” experts speaking on issues that disproportionately affect people of color, women, and the poor. When policy is being crafted post-hearing, the lack of diversity on staff “creates sub-optimal policies that create sub-optimal results for people of color,” Rockeymoore says, which affect everything from education to job creation. “What you get is a biased policy-making process that ends up undermining people of color.”

An argument supporting the morality of affirmative action policies that I’ve found particularly compelling in the past is that being a PoC is in itself a qualification – that you have experiences and insight that are not commonly found in non-PoCs. This is a kind of ‘soft skill’ that doesn’t really fit on a resume, but is particularly relevant when your job is to propose and implement policies that are targeted at issues facing PoCs. To be sure, being a black person doesn’t necessarily give you insight into issues facing Latino immigrants orFirst Nations people (or vice versa), but there is something common in the experience of not being part of the majority that may give you particular sensitivity to problems apparent in other groups.

Also, considering issues of privilege and the completely messed up ideas that people tend to develop when they grow up in an environment completely separated (one might say segregated) from people who aren’t part of their in-group, it might be an absolutely terrible idea to give absolute power to that one group. If the only black people you’ve ever seen are on TV, you’re probably going to make more than a couple of mistakes when you try to write and enact policies that are intended for those people.

And of course, in the same way that educational disparities can echo through generations, lack of political influence can do the same. When policies are enacted that fail to address underlying disparities in access to opportunities and/or ability to achieve success, it becomes unlikely for the next generation of PoCs to rise to the levels of financial and political opportunity that are required to enter the halls of power:

[Washington lawyer Ami] Sanchez diagnoses the lack of diversity on the Hill as a multi-part problem. First, she says, there’s a high bar to entry. Most interns don’t get paid, which limits the pool of those who can access Hill internships. “I would have to leave every day to make it to my job that paid, so I could pay my rent,” she says of her intern days on the Hill. “It’s a huge burden, and those decisions are very real.” Second, people of color who don’t have a family history of higher education often lack the networks and professional connections you need to get opportunities in Washington. “Among folks who have parents who went to college, and had that kind of white-collar professional experience—there’s a real awareness and understanding of what it takes to get on the Hill,” Sanchez says.

Again, the kind of approach we have to take if we’re interested in seeing these disparities decrease requires us to actively change our recruitment strategies in such a way that encourages the hiring of more minority candidates. It is not enough to simply blame, or say “maybe there aren’t enough candidates who qualify” or leave it up to the free market to solve the problem for us – this is simply ideological refusal to engage with the problem.

What I would like to stress with both today’s story and yesterday’s is that these kinds of effects happen even in the absence of active race hatred. We’re not talking about a group of people that hate black and brown people and are actively trying to keep them (us) oppressed. This isn’t an old boy’s club that will disappear on its own in a few years – this is the result of a system that is structurally positioned to benefit the white majority. I do believe that there are a number of well-intentioned white people who truly do wish to see the eradication of racism in our lifetime, but so long as we continue to treat it as simply the active hatred of a tiny handful of people rather than a deeper cognitive and psychological flaw that exists in all of us, we won’t see much progress toward that goal.

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2 comments

  1. 1
    Curtis McDonald

    Good read. It’s really shocking to see those numbers and I can only imaging that the equivalent Canadian numbers would probably be even worse.

    I have a hard time contemplating affirmative action, simply because I have a hard time comprehending the non-white perspective on the topic – i.e., despite the numerous invisible and unconscious advantages I may have as a young white male (privilege) , I will often still feel (in a knee-jerk reaction) unfairly disadvantaged by affirmative action. I like to believe that simply acknowledging these reactions and checking them when they occur makes me a bit more grown-up than I used to be. I’m definitely finding that reading the blogs of people who come from different backgrounds has really made a huge difference in my own social development.

    In the context of your topic though, I don’t think anyone could deny that the need for some sort of reform is absolutely crucial. Especially these days when so many high profile politicians are starting to seem like one dimensional cartoon villains!

  2. 2
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I think eliminating the whole ‘unpaid intern’ crap would an excellent start. I never came across this in Ireland, it always struck me as an entirely American concept that was just… well, frankly, evil. But hey, I’m a socialist… (and as the Americans infiltrated Ireland, internships became more common)

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