On Jan. 5, the National Urban League Washington Bureau sponsored a panel discussion “Increasing Racial Diversity in the U.S. Senate.” The event, held at the Hart Senate Office Building, had an audience of roughly 50 people. Don Bell, president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, said the low number of minorities in top Senate staff and committee positions is unacceptable.

“We are no longer going to be voiceless in this chamber,” Bell said. “We need a change in mindset regarding minority hiring among the leaders and members of the Senate.”

Sen. Kamala Harris recently hired a Black legislative director. (Courtesy Photo)
Sen. Kamala Harris recently hired a Black legislative director. (Courtesy Photo)

In December 2015, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a report “Racial Diversity Among Top Senate Staff” that stated although people of color consisted of 35 percent of the U.S. population, among top Senate staffers there were only 7.1 percent of color in Capitol Hill offices and of those 0.9 percent Black.

In personal offices, there was one Black chief of staff out of 94, no Black legislative directors and one communication director. On Senate committees, there were no Black Republican staff directors and one Democratic staff director.

On Jan. 9, the Joint Center announced that U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) had hired Black legislative directors. While these hires are important, they do little to change the statistical landscape of Blacks in key Senate positions.

These hires are taking place as the Senate becomes more racially diverse than ever in its history. There are three Black U.S. Senators, Harris, Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), four Latinos and two Asian-Americans.

Ami Sanchez is the general counsel for the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. “The committees are responsible for legislation and we need people [of color] who have subject matter expertise,” Sanchez said. “People of color need to be in the room because that is where the decisions are made in terms of how legislation is written and the negotiation that takes place between the ranking member and the committee chair.”

Sanchez said Black staffers tend to deal with criminal justice issues and Latinos work on immigration and that needs to change. “We need to expand the pool of folks in different substantive areas,” she said.

Jennifer DeCasper, chief of staff to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), is the only Black employed by the Senate in that position. DeCasper said the hiring of people of color should come from the top. “You have to have a boss and a chief of staff that are committed to diversity,” DeCasper said. DeCasper said Blacks need to apply for the positions and noted that “the Black Republican pool of applicants is a lot smaller than the Black Democratic pool.”

“I try to mentor my own staff to help them reach their potential,” she said.

Will Searcy, the interim director of the Joint Center’s Black Talent Initiative, is charged with increasing the number of African Americans in appointed positions in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Searcy said all members of Congress should seek people of color to hire. “It shouldn’t be members of color who hire people of color,” Searcy said. “This isn’t a partisan issue. Both sides have to show diversity.”

Bell announced that some progress has been made in addressing Senate diversity. “Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has agreed to sponsor a resolution that would establish a chief diversity officer in the Senate,” he said. “That would help as we have encouraged both the Democratic and Republican caucuses to create diversity plans for their staffs and for both to collect data on diversity. We also urge that the Senate agree to create and abide compliance rules on diversity and set up an internship for minorities.”

Paul Brathwaite, former director of the Congressional Black Caucus, works for a lobbying firm. He told the AFRO that the work on diversity that the Senate staffers of color are doing is important. “Many people don’t realize that chiefs of staffs, legislative directors, and communications directors [positions] can lead to lucrative careers in government and corporate relations,” Brathwaite said. “These jobs act as feeders to those important industries.”