“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.” – Barack Obama
Since our founding in 1910, the National Urban League has been focused on economic civil rights and empowerment issues. At the core of economic civil rights is the idea that all people should have access to jobs for which they are qualified. For instance, in the 1960’s the venerable Whitney M. Young, worked to convince CEO’s of America’s top corporations that “Negroes” were qualified to do more than just mop floors. Mr. Young described his proposals for integration and affirmative action in his two books, To Be Equal (1964) and Beyond Racism (1969).
Even today, the National Urban League is engaged with corporate America in the areas of diversity and inclusion. We have worked with companies such as ATT, Verizon and Comcast to diversify their companies from top to bottom. While there is work to do yet, we’ve seen some progress. For instance, there are nearly 40 general counsel of color standing at the legal helm of Fortune 500 companies.
In spite of the progress this country has made related to corporate diversity, our Congress, specifically the U.S. Senate, has failed to move the needle when it comes to diversity and inclusion. While policy decisions affecting all Americans are debated in the halls of Congress, persons of color are largely absent in top level staff positions. Thus, on issues like education, the economy, health care, and decisions of war and peace, Members of Congress are legislating without the perspectives of black and brown staff.
The lack of diversity on Capitol Hill is not a new issue. I addressed this issue in 2006 in a submission to the Bay State Banner. There I stated, “So senators will still preach the benefits of diversity, but they won’t necessarily put their sermons into practice. And even if they don’t talk the talk, they should walk the walk – not just for the sake of the people they represent, but for the nation as a whole.”
The lack of diversity is especially pronounced at the senior level. There are 100 Senators. Each Senator has 3 senior positions in their personal offices – Chief of Staff, Legislative Director and Communications Director. Those 3 positions, unlike any others assist in the management of the Senator’s officeand the Senate legislative agenda, shape the $3.8 trillion U.S. federal budget, provide oversight of federal agencies and hire, manage, mentor and promote junior Senate staff. These influential top 3 aides advise the senators on all issues and their recommendations are usually carried out.
In 2015, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a 31-page report depicting the diversity problem. It found that although people of color make up over 36% of the U.S. population, they represent only 7% of Chiefs of Staff, Communication Directors and Legislative Directors in the personal offices of all U.S. Senators. And when it comes to numbers for African Americans the findings are even more alarming. There is only oneAfrican American Chief of Staff out of 100. There is only one African American legislative director out of 100. There is only one African American communications director out of 100. Most troubling is the fact that out of the three African American senior staffers just mentioned, only one works for a democratic senator.
So why hasn’t this issue been addressed in the past? The answer is simple: Members of Congress have exempted themselves from most labor laws like the Equal Employment Act of 1972 and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a result, there is no legal requirement for Senators to provide answers to anyone when it comes to the employees they hire for their personal staffs and/or committee assignments. The Senate also doesn’t have to follow the federal Freedom of Information Act that gives citizens access to information about their government. So citizens and groups like NUL can’t get access to Congressional employment figures even though we can get such numbers from companies that receive federal contracts.
On January 5th, the Washington Bureau hosted a lunch and panel discussion on this important issue. At the event, the discussion centered on solutions for addressing the lack of diversity at the senior staff level and discussed the creation of a pipeline for junior staffers of color. During the discussion, the National Urban League proposed the following solutions:
Congress must enact legislation or rules subjecting it to employment laws which require reporting of employment demographics.
Congress must publish and announce vacancies for senior staff positions so those vacancies are no longer filled in secrecy and behind closed doors.
Once vacancies are announced, fair interview processes must be established employing the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule”. The Rooney Rule is the NFL’s policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.
The National Urban League will continue to monitor this issue. In the coming weeks, we will send the resumes of senior level candidates of color to newly elected senators and senators representing states with high minority populations. The hope is to provide the members with a qualified talent pool to interview when senior positions become open. We also plan to make diversity and inclusion a part of our legislative priorities. When our affiliates arrive in Washington DC on May 2 for the Legislative Policy Conference, diversity and inclusion will be on our agenda. We have to make it a priority. It’s about time the U.S. Congress brings its diversity problem out of the attic – if not for the sake of minorities attempting to make a name for themselves on Capitol Hill then for the integrity and effectiveness of our nation’s laws. Capitol Hill should look like the model of diversity, not like a members-only country club.
Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.