America Is Getting More Diverse, So Why Aren’t Elected Officials?
America is getting browner. By 2050 Hispanics are expected to be 29 percent of the population, making the U.S. a majority minority nation. According to the Pew Research Center, both African Americans and Asian Americans will also increase their numbers, while the number of non-Hispanic whites will fall to less than half of the populace for the first time in modern history. However, despite the country’s increasing diversity, our elected officials look markedly different from the people they’re supposed to represent.
The numbers are startling. According to a study by the Women Donors Network, 90 percent of politicians are white, even though white folks comprise 63 percent of the population. While more than half of all Americans are women, 71 percent of officeholders are men. The result? White men make up more than two-thirds of America’s elected officials, even though they are only 31 percent of the population—which too often leads some politicians to be disconnected from the concerns of their constituents.
From the tone-deaf debates about legitimate rape and contraception to the lack of action on issues important to people of color—such as immigration reform—having a government that isn’t representative of its people is not only problematic but also unproductive.
“Our democracy has no winners when the people who make it to the finish line do not represent the full array of talent and experience of the American people,” says Donna Hall, CEO of the Women Donors Network. “The American people understand that we need to change the system to have a truly reflective and effective democracy.”
Years of gridlock and divisive rhetoric have resulted in half of voters labeling Congress “very unproductive.” Many Americans feel their elected representatives are out of touch, and few are confident that the current crop of lawmakers can adequately deal with the nation’s challenges.
Where do we get politicians who can get the job done and are representative of a changing nation? While America has always taken pride in its can-do attitude and the possibility that anyone, even a relatively unknown person with little money but a whole lot of gumption, can enter politics, the truth is, few people are able to do so.
“There are a lot of decisions that are made before you even see someone’s name on a ballot,” says Brenda Choresi Carter, the director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Carter’s organization teamed up with the Women Donors Network on the Who Leads Us campaign, which seeks to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in politics. Though it would be beneficial to both political parties to cast a wide net to recruit qualified candidates, Carter recently told The New Yorker that party bosses typically “pull from within their own network. If those networks are male-dominated or white, they essentially end up with people who kind of look like them.”
But there are signs of change. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, 66 percent of black women turned out to vote—more than any other demographic. It wasn’t a fluke. During last year’s off-cycle gubernatorial election in Virginia, African American women flocked to the polls, helping Democrat Terry McAuliffe buck the state’s conservative history and become governor. Now black women are hoping to parlay their power at the ballot box into increased representation in government.
This year a record number of African American women are running for political office across the country. If successful, their elections would result in upwards of 20 black women in the House of Representatives. If that happens, it would be a serious coup. Though African American women vote in greater numbers than any other group, they are the least likely to be encouraged to run for office, according to a report by the Higher Heights Leadership Fund, a nonprofit organization that works to foster more African American female political leaders. This translates to less representation and advocacy for African American women at every level of government.
Higher Heights cofounder Glynda Carr says there’s only one solution.
“Black women must show up to the polls if we truly want to create a more representative political body that will fight for pay equity, health care access, improved educational opportunities, and other issues that affect black women on a daily basis,” says Carr. “The forthcoming Nov. 4 midterm provides us with the opportunity to begin addressing these issues and become more fully and consistently involved in the political process.”
The myth of America is that the country is one gigantic melting pot in which every citizen has a voice and a vote, and the government is a direct representation of the people. If organizations such as Higher Heights and the Women Donors Network have their say, our imperfect union will soon start to look a little bit more like those within it.