August 28th, 2013


My tweets


African-Americans in the Senate

Since I used Women's Equality Day to look back at the number of women who were serving in the U.S. Senate when I started working there in 1992, I figured I'd do something similar today, the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

The number of African-American U.S. Senators when I started working on Capitol Hill in 1992 was zero. But hey, what can you expect, that was only 29 years after the March on Washington. Today, 50 years later, that number has swelled to one. Whoo!

The list of African-Americans who have served in the U.S. Senate is pathetically short, containing just 8 names. That list will almost certainly expand to 9 this October, when Cory Booker wins the special election in New Jersey to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg, but that's still pathetic.

As was the case with female Senators, 1992 was something of a landmark year for African-Americans in the Senate, as Illinois voters sent Carol Moseley Braun to Washington, making her the first African-American elected to the Senate woman in 20 years. But whereas the five women elected to the Senate in 1992 kicked off an era in which the number of women in the Senate has only increased, Moseley Braun remained the only black Senator for the duration of her term, and it would be another 12 years until another was elected.

It wasn't until this year that there were two African-American Senators serving simultaneously: Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Mo Cowan of Massachusetts. It's back down to one now -- Cowan was an interim appointment to the seat vacated by John Kerry when he became Secretary of State, and he stepped down when Ed Markey was elected to that seat -- but with Booker on the way, that won't last long

African-Americans have fared better in the House of Representatives, thanks in no small part to majority-minority districts. But the list is still pretty short when you consider how many people have served in the House. Of the 11,259 men and women who have served as House members, 139 have been black. That's a little more than 1 percent, versus about 0.4% in the Senate. But to look at it in another way, there are currently 43 African-American House members, about 10% of the total membership, while black or African-American people make up 13.1% of the US population. That's pretty close!

I have my doubts that the Senate will ever get that close. I wouldn't necessarily rule it out, but if it ever does happen, it probably won't be in my lifetime. Considering it took very close to 143 years just to get two black Senators serving simultaneously, I'll consider it a major step forward just to get three. But I'm not going to hold my breath for that either.