Published in The Emancipator (a joint venture between the Boston Globe and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research)
Shared identity can extend benefits beyond race, according to Spencer Piston, an associate professor of political science at Boston University. For example, he says, “Legislators of poorer backgrounds are more likely than rich legislators to look out for poor people’s interests.”
Our federal representatives don’t reflect us – especially in the Senate
At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives most closely resembles the United States as a whole in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. Just shy of two-thirds of House members identify as White; 12.5% of them are Black; and 9.5% are Latino, according to the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. Senate, on the other hand, is the least representative of America’s racial diversity with 83% of its members identifying as White, 3% as Black, and 7% as Latino.
The federal judiciary is similarly split, with the U.S. Supreme Court having similar ratios as the United States overall, though without any Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Indigenous people, or multiracial members. But the overwhelming majority of the 1,413 sitting federal judges identify as White, according to the Federal Judicial Center.
Forty-seven of those federal judges are of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent; and four are Native Americans: Diane Joyce Humetewa of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, Lauren Jennifer King of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, Frank Howell Seay of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, and Sunshine Suzanne Sykes of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
The top level of the executive branch is split between a White man, President Joe Biden, and a multiracial woman, Vice President Kamala Harris, who has both Black and Asian American heritage.
Some state governments reflect their state’s diversity, others fall far short
States’ executive branches are overwhelmingly White, with just three governors (Hawaii, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) identifying as having backgrounds other than White.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hawaii’s legislature is the least White, with just 22% of its members identifying with that background, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Vermont and North Dakota are served by legislators who are 98% White. The Whitest state in the nation is Maine, where 96% of its lawmakers are White. Even so, those states’ legislatures are relatively representative of their majority-White constituencies.
Mississippi’s lawmakers are also relatively representative of their population: 57% White, 27% Black, and 14% other races in a legislature serving a population that is 56% White and 37% Black.
Starkly unrepresentative legislatures exist in Alaska, Delaware, and Oklahoma, where White lawmakers are much more prevalent than White constituents. In Delaware, a population that is just 61.5% White, residents are served by a legislature that is 85.9% White. That leaves a lot of people who may not find their interests, experiences, or needs shared or understood by those who hold power.
When it comes to judges at the state level, it’s a little more complicated, in particular because reliable data from the National Center for State Courts is only available for 25 states. Hawaii is again the least White with 21.8% of its judges identifying as such, 37.2% identifying as Asian American, and 20.5% identifying as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. At the other end of the spectrum is New Hampshire, where 100% of judges identify as White.
Majority-female nation, led mostly by men
The overall national population is slightly more than half female, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But all three branches of the federal government are more male than the population. The Senate is the most male-dominated, with 76% of its members identifying as male, according to the Congressional Research Service. As the first female vice president in U.S. history, Harris makes the top of the executive branch an even gender split. The U.S. Supreme Court is majority male, with four of the nine justices being women.
States’ executive branches are male-dominated, with just nine governorships held by women as of September 2022.
The legislatures of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming have an overwhelming male presence. More than 80% of the legislators from those states are men, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nine state legislative branches are relatively evenly split: Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington have male majorities, but women account for more than 40% of those lawmakers. Only Nevada has a majority-female legislature, with 61.9% of its members identifying as women.
When it comes to the judicial branch, limited data obscures the full picture. But what is available shows Nevada as the most equitable, with half of the judges being female, according to the National Center for State Courts. Alaska, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon are relatively equitable, with less than 60% of their judges identifying as male. At the other end of the spectrum, in Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and New Hampshire more than 70% of the judges are men.
King acknowledges that shared identity isn’t always a clincher in achieving an individual’s hoped-for policy goals. But, she adds: “In the context of the United States, one of the persistent and long-lasting markers of identity is race. So even if it’s a Black person who is conservative who doesn’t represent me, the presence of racial and ethnic minorities in positions of power is important for democratic representation and governance.”
Jeff Inglis is a Boston-based editor, writer and data journalist who has covered politics, technology, science and culture in various parts of the U.S., as well as New Zealand and Antarctica.