The 116th Congress, the current meeting of the legislative branch of the United States federal government, is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. Black, Latinx, Asian/ Pacific Islander, or Indigenous members now account for 22% of Congress, a record-breaking trend on Capitol Hill. This represents an 84% increase over the 107th Congress of 2001 to 2003, which had 63 diverse members. Although racial and ethnic diversity among lawmakers has increased over the years, Congress remains disproportionately white when compared to the overall U.S. population.
Social Solutionist Dr. Angela Henderson suggests that the lack of diversity of legislators on Capitol Hill is directly tied to institutional racism. Skilled in research and statistical analysis, Dr. Henderson examined demographic data from the 116th Congress to better understand the relationship between systemic inequities and racial and ethnic disproportionality. Dr. Henderson translates research into action-oriented solutions that will eradicate institutional racism and increase diversity on Capitol Hill.
“The best way to change the future is to understand history.”
– Adam Ramer
The requirement for candidates to raise significant funds for their congressional campaign compounds the homogeneity on Capitol Hill. Due to the effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and unequitable wealth distribution, the lack of monetary inheritance within communities of color present significant barriers. Monetary inheritance within a family provides financial stability for future generations to thrive and take advantage of wealth-building opportunities. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center article, the income of households headed by Black people continues to lag behind households headed by white people. In 2014, the median Black household income was approximately $43,300 while the median white household income was about $71,300. The study also found that household heads with higher levels of formal education tend to have higher household incomes. However, the Black-white-gap in income occurs across all educational levels and indicates a lack of equitable opportunities for communities of color.
Decades of racial discrimination, segregation, and disinvestments in communities of color have left families with fewer resources when under financial pressure. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted The New Deal to combat a housing shortage and to increase housing stock. In reality, this program was a state-sponsored system of segregation that pushed Black and Brown families into urban housing projects. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration furthered segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages within Black and Brown communities, a practice known as redlining. The Federal Housing Administration justified racial segregation by claiming property values would decrease if people of color bought homes near the suburbs. Although the New Deal was repealed in 1939, it has left behind ongoing stagnant racial inequities and deep wealth gaps between Black and white communities.
Debt negatively impacts all families but is especially burdensome for families of color. Research suggests that while only 15% of white households have been late with debt payments, 27% of Black households have been late with debt payments. Without a social safety net or alternative financial means, more and more Black families may be at risk of taking out additional loans at high interest rates to pay their living expenses. This leaves fewer assets and means for families to support and assist their children with basic life necessities, such as housing, transportation, and/or college tuition.
“There can be no learning without action, and no action without learning.”
– Reg Revans
According to Dr. Henderson, we can take the following steps to push back against the effects of institutional racism and increase leadership diversity on Capitol Hill:
- Community Rites of Passage Investment: We must strategically invest in our youth of color early, particularly investing in youths of color who are on a political track that requires financial means to succeed. Given that it takes a village to raise a child, our community should collectively craft solutions and invest in opportunities for our children to do so.
- Mentoring, Internships, and Fellowships: All professions, including political social workers and researchers, should challenge themselves to mentor and provide internships and fellowships to youth, undergraduate, and graduate students. These programs and opportunities, such as Emerge Virginia, will help students get acquainted with working in Congressional or State offices.
- Political Training Programs: This learning opportunity will help students develop skills around campaign messaging, fundraising, campaign budgeting, and all tactics pertaining to running for office.
- Political Action Committees (PAC): Support PACs, U.S. organizations that raise money privately to influence elections or legislation.
- Social Work Political Campaign Courses: Every social work program around the country should offer a course about social workers and political campaigns. This course should provide social work students with a year-long intensive training on politics, etiquette, debating, and different ways to prepare them for work in this realm.
In order to increase leadership diversity on Capitol Hill, we will need to create more opportunities for people of color. Acknowledging the challenges and barriers they often face such as limited professional networks and political clout, we have to be intentional about bringing people of color into these spaces. We have to ensure that we are equipping youth and communities of color with the connections and resources needed to build wealth and maintain sustainability. As Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley urges, “we have to be disruptors, innovators, and we have to shake the table.”
How to Create Inclusive Environments for Black Students on Predominantly White College Campuses
Predominantly white institutions of higher education in the United States routinely point to rising enrollments of students of color as evidence of their commitment to racial diversity and inclusion. Indeed, from 1996 to 2012, college enrollments of minority students have increased exponentially. Across all types of institutions, the percentage of white college students enrolled in the United States fell from 84 percent in 1976 to 58 percent in 2015.
Even so, Black enrollments in selective colleges and universities have remained consistently low for the past two decades. Regardless of shifting percentages, however, enrollment numbers are poor metrics for inclusivity. They say very little about the social integration of Black students once they arrive on predominantly white college campuses.
Inclusivity depends on more than enrollment rates, it is about enrolled students coming to feel that they really belong in campus communities where they are valued and accepted. The prevalence of anti-Black incidents and the growing presence of white supremacist groups on college campuses suggest that America has not achieved true inclusivity for Black college students — and may be losing ground in some places.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that the number of reported campus hate crimes increased by 25 percent from 2015 to 2016, right after the election of Donald Trump. Further, there have been high profile media reports of white students or college staff people who call the police on Black students and staff for engaging in routine activities such as sleeping in a residence hall common area or eating lunch on campus.
Predominantly white institutions can cultivate more inclusive environments for Black students by moving beyond just numerical diversity. They should focus instead on subtle dynamics of campus exclusion, and the extent to which students feel they belong and are well mentored and supported.
Mechanisms of Anti-Black Exclusion on Predominantly White Campuses
Sociological research points to discriminatory dynamics for Black students on predominantly white campuses:
Segregated white socialization. Anti-Black prejudice in the United States has long been reinforced by racially segregated neighborhoods, schools, and churches that make it possible for white students to arrive on college campuses without ever having interacted meaningfully with Black peers. With academic tracking, many white students can also be educated in predominantly white classrooms even in racially diverse public schools. As a result, many white students and faculty arrive on college campuses holding unchallenged racist myths and misconceptions about Black people.
Hostile racial climates. Scholars find that a hostile racial climate leads to feelings of marginalization and isolation that harm achievement and retention for minority students. Greater numbers of minority enrollees do not necessarily lead to cross-racial interactions, or necessarily challenge dominant racial ideologies and master narratives. Black students experience hostile campus climates through everyday racial slights and the failure of faculty and administrators at historically white institutions to enact policies to counter racial and ethnic harassment.
Assumptions flowing from college admissions policies. College admissions policies can contribute to the marginalization of Black students by creating presumptions that many of them may be less meritorious than their white and Asian peers. The Black–white SAT test score gap feeds into racist notions of Black intellectual inferiority and informs false narratives of affirmative action programs as discriminatory towards white and Asian applicants. Yet research confirms that GPAs are a better predictor of college performance than SAT scores; and many test scores have been found to rest on racially biased assumptions. Apart from assumptions spread by admissions rules, recent scholarship also suggests that some admissions officers discriminate against prospective Black students who are oriented towards social justice.
How to Fight Black Exclusion on College Campuses
Providing supportive and inclusive spaces for Black students is particularly important in the current social context. The following are suggestions that can be used by predominantly white institutions.
Develop new metrics for success. Stop using only numeral diversity in admissions or graduation rates as the primary metrics for progress. Instead, focus as well on measuring the racial climate on campus and student feelings of belonging and attachment to the institution.
Train people in how to discuss racial issues. Provide professional training for faculty on how to lead effective conversations about racism in their classrooms and as advisors. Provide similar training to administrators, staff, and student leaders.
Establish both safe spaces and brave spaces: Recognize that Black students need safe spaces on predominantly white campuses where they can have a reprieve from anti-Black racism. Simultaneously, create cross-racial “brave spaces” for all students to develop authentic and sustained interracial interactions, while providing them with tools and support to do so effectively.
- Spread anti-racist narratives: Find multiple ways to counter harmful anti-Black stereotypes. For example, Test Optional College Admissions policies are already being used at many of the most competitive schools in the United States. And classroom curricula can also be used to further deepen students’ racial literacy. Additionally, universities should forcefully identify antiracist values as a core feature of their institution’s identity.
- Anti-discrimination and harassment policies: Develop clear policies and procedures that outline consequences for discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, and other social identities. These policies provide accountability that is critical for combating hostile racial climates.
Read more in Bedelia Nicola Richards, “Faculty Assessments as Tools of Oppression: A Black Woman’s Reflections on (Colorblind) Racism in the Academy” in Intersectionality and Higher Education: Identity and Inequality on College Campuses, edited by W. Carson Byrd, Sarah Ovink, and Rachelle J. Brunn-Bevel (Rutgers University Press, 2019).
Why America’s Women Of Color Have Lost Ground Since The Great Recession
Picture a small office with three employees: Jake, a white man; Anita, a Latina woman whose husband lost his job a year ago; and Crystal, a black single mother. Even though all three have similar duties, Jake takes home $1000 per paycheck, while Crystal gets $700 and Anita earns $600. The office also used to employ Anne, another black woman, but she was laid off during hard times in 2009. Crystal and Anita are fortunate to still have their jobs, but their wages put their yearly earnings below the federally measured “poverty line.” Unable to get by on their wages alone, their families also need help from public benefits.
This scenario is imaginary, but it gets at general trends and truths. The recent Great Recession brought hard times to most Americans, but it was especially devastating for women of color. Today, black women and Latinas face worse job and wage prospects and experience higher poverty rates and greater difficulties in gaining access to health care. Many female-headed households have depleted their “rainy day” savings and depend on a patchwork of low wages and bare-bones supplements like Food Stamps and unemployment insurance to make ends meet. The 2009 recession and slow economic growth since then have derailed many women’s previously modest economic progress. Today, America’s women of color are, overall, significantly worse off than they were before the economic crisis hit.
Eroding Financial Security
Black and Hispanic women suffered big income losses during and after the Great Recession.
- In 2009 alone, black females holding jobs dropped from 58.8 to 54.6 percent, while Latinas holding employment fell from 51.9 to 50.1 percent. Today, 13.8 percent of black women and 12.3 percent of Latinas are looking for jobs they cannot find (and their rates of unemployment exceed the national average by 6.2 and 4.7 percentage points respectively).
- Already struggling households headed by black women and Latinas have plunged into poverty. From 2007 to 2011, the percentage of black female-headed households in poverty jumped from 43.9 to 47.3 percent. The numbers are worse for Latina-headed households, for whom the percentage in poverty grew from 46.6 to 49.1 percent.
Household wealth – the value of assets, minus debts owed – also matters. The Great Recession depleted the accumulated wealth of U.S. households across the board, but hit black and Latino households the hardest. Today, the typical white man – the one in the middle of the overall national distribution of all white men – has a net worth of $43,800. But the net worth of the typical single Latina women is a mere $120 and it is only $100 dollars for the typical single black woman. Another way to think of this situation is to realize that nearly half of single women of color have zero or negative net worth, meaning their debts equal or exceed their total assets. Such women had little accumulated wealth before the recession and now have less, a situation sure to have lasting adverse effects on the financial security of these women and their families.
Limited Access to Health Insurance
As black and Hispanic women’s economic fortunes have declined, it has become harder for many to get access to good quality health care. Private health insurance coverage for black women has decreased from 54.1 to 50 percent since 2007, largely because women who lost jobs also lost employer-backed health insurance. For Latina women, the story has been similar, as private health coverage has fallen from 45.2 to 41.6 percent since 2007.
Some emergency provisions of the Affordable Care Act went into effect in early 2010, offering health coverage to some Americans who lost jobs. Government-provided health insurance increased coverage in 2010 from 36.7 to 40.9 percent for black women and from 31.1 to 36.3 percent for Latinas. But federal help is temporary and many states do not offer Medicaid to people close to the poverty line. Today, close to one in five Latinas and more than one in four black women remain without any health insurance coverage. Research shows that people without insurance often put off needed health checkups and may delay life-saving care until too late.
A Hostile Political Landscape
Why have black and Latina women fallen so far behind, even as the country has begun to recover from the effects of the recession? Part of the explanation lays in state-level political dynamics hurtful to low-income people. Ten million uninsured women earn incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty line, which would qualify them for Medicaid under the 2014 expansion. Yet four million of these women will continue to live without any form of health insurance or access to Medicaid, because they are unfortunate enough to reside in one of the up to two dozen states whose governments are refusing to participate in the planned expansion of Medicaid. These states include Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, states where women of color have some of the lowest average incomes, even when they work full-time at difficult jobs like home health aide.
Despite the historic presidency of Barack Obama, America’s women of color are also losing political leverage. Since 2009, 11 states have adopted photo ID laws that disproportionately burden otherwise eligible low-income, black, and Latino voters. Many of them cannot afford cars and do not have drivers’ licenses, and states make it difficult to obtain alternative forms of photo identification. Twenty-five percent of blacks eligible to vote and 16 percent of Latinos eligible to vote lack a valid photo ID, compared with only 8 percent of whites.
In addition to facing barriers to voting, black and Latina women rarely appear on the ballot for public offices whose incumbents make crucial decisions about the economy and social benefits. Black and Latina women only fill 23 of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress, and they fill only 322 of the 7,382 state legislative seats. Until more women of color vote and serve in office, policymakers will likely remain uninterested in addressing their extraordinary economic difficulties. Latinas and black women and the families that depend upon them will continue to fall behind, even as the rest of America recovers from the Great Recession.
Examining White Privilege: What’s the Fear?
Dickinson student Leda Fisher asks the question “Should White Boys Still be Allowed to Talk?” in her opinion piece in the college’s daily news publication, The Dickinsonian. Reportedly, Ms. Fisher indicates that she has received overwhelming support in response to her piece. However, the backlash and negative comments have been swift and brutal, including calls for her expulsion. The opinion piece has gone viral, which presents the opportunity to explore why her comments have pushed so many buttons. Specifically, examining the role of higher education, exploring constructs related to power, and the impact of cumulative rage are issues for further consideration.
The Role of Higher Education
We expect colleges and universities to value freedom of speech, to support the development and expression of thought, and to expose students to new ideas. However, these priorities come with challenges, including the challenge to listen while feeling uncomfortable. The evidence about white male dominance in the classroom and other life settings is clear. Being silenced, mansplained, and not having room for diverse views are routine characteristics of school and work environments for women and people of color. It is unclear why Dickinson students would not be glad for the insight that Fisher provides about her experience, and appreciative for her courage in putting such a perspective out there. Further, as a woman of color at a majority white school, why would her vulnerability not be supported? Supporting vulnerability is also the role of students in higher education.
Feminism, since its inception, has been acknowledging and understanding power. Contemporary feminist theory speaks about the definition of power as “the capacity to produce change “ (Jean Baker Miller, 1991), and notes that power itself is not bad/wrong/evil. In fact, there is an understanding that power is what helps us make decisions about our lives and move us forward. The distinction is made of the difference between “power over” which speaks to how one uses their power to impact themselves and others; and the “power with” approach, where we can share in the capacity to produce individual, organizational, and collective change. “Power with” does not necessarily mean that you lose anything; it means that you gain the perspective and respect of others. As this understanding deepens, it promotes mutual benefit.
The question to those of us who are white is, can you sit quietly and really listen to the experience of someone else? Can you share power? Just as being heard and having a voice is critical to healthy psychological development, the experience of not having a voice is also a critical experience in one’s life. Suppressing your voice for a moment so that you can listen to another does not make you weak. It makes you vulnerable in the best possible way. It helps you to grow in your understanding of another person’s experience, and it gives you knowledge which will undoubtedly help you in future interactions with those similar and different from you.
Some of the response to the op-ed seem to focus on a perspective that Fisher is “being racist” for making generalizations about white boys, and that such generalizations are “just as bad” as the racism experienced by people of color. She has subsequently responded to this accusation with the prevailing definition of racism which speaks to systematic efforts to marginalize others based on race.
Yes, Ms. Fisher makes generalizations and it is understood that the generalizations do not apply to 100% of the white male population. But she is naming a prevalent and universal experience a Why is it so difficult to see the position of power and privilege that white boys occupy? I speak for myself, and not for Ms. Fisher, but it is understood that it is not your fault that you have such privilege.
It is understood that you did not ask for it, and you may not even be fully aware of it. But you experience your privilege in most life situations. You may not even realize that there is another way to behave in the classroom that does not involve your constant contributions. Rather than defending yourself, why not take a moment for reflection and observation? If you have privilege, you have a responsibility to understand that you have it and use it to ensure all voices are heard. This is your real power.
I suspect that part of the negative reaction may be related to the clearly articulated rage Ms. Fisher expresses in the opinion piece. Women, and especially women of color, are not supposed to express anger, let alone rage. Again, what is the issue with listening? Awareness means knowing that the issue of women experiencing rage is occurring throughout the United States right now. There is a growing body of literature about it (ie “Good and Mad” by Rebecca Traister). The style and flavor of anger will unfold as it chooses. We may not like the way it sounds and the way it makes us feel. But we must listen.
Welcoming the contributions of students like Leda Fisher make all of us more aware, more attentive, and more self-reflective. The journey of self-reflection is life-long, and being open to the sometimes painful but inevitable growth that comes with engaging in another person’s experience is one of the ultimate goals of higher education and beyond.
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