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Government Leadership by Race

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Racial and ethnic minority groups constitute a growing segment of the U.S. population, although their share of government leadership roles doesn’t always reflect that.

Though people of color are fairly well represented in appointed positions, such as in President Biden’s Cabinet, elected bodies at the federal and state levels have a ways to go before they truly reflect the diversity of the American people. 

Here’s a look at the racial and ethnic makeup of various leadership positions in the United States. 

Key Takeaways

  • President Biden vowed to make his Cabinet the most diverse in U.S. history to better represent the nation’s population.
  • Though Congress is more diverse than it has ever been, the overwhelming majority of its members are White.
  • When Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president, she made history as the first woman and first woman of color to hold that office.
  • Members of underrepresented groups have made only modest gains in state legislatures.
  • Though many large cities have a majority-minority population, only about a third of large cities have Black mayors, and Latinx/Hispanic mayors are even less represented.

Racial Representation in Federal Government

The Biden Administration

Shortly before entering the White House, then-President-elect Joe Biden pledged to build “an administration that looks like America.” Biden made good on that promise: data from the White House shows the Biden-Harris Administration is the most diverse government in U.S. history.

Of course, Biden already had a head start in that endeavor by choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate. Her rise to the second-highest post in the executive branch was historic in more ways than one.

In addition to becoming the first female vice president, Harris—born to a mother from India and a Jamaican father—is also the first person of color to serve in that office.

From a racial perspective, Biden’s Cabinet has also shaped up to reflect a country in which roughly 40% of the populace are racial minorities.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, 75.5% of Americans identify as White alone, 19.1% are Latino/Hispanic, 13.6% are Black or African American, 6.3% are Asian, 0.3% claim native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander heritage. Another 1.3% identify as Native American or Alaska Native. 

Biden’s Cabinet

Of the 15 highest-ranking posts in Biden’s 2021 Cabinet—those in the line of succession to the presidency—six are non-White members. The choice of Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior, now the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet, was particularly noteworthy.

Biden also tapped Lloyd Austin as the first Black person to serve as secretary of defense and Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American, as the first Latino/Hispanic head of homeland security.

In all, Biden’s core Cabinet appointments included:

As a percentage of the key appointees—presidents can expand or contract the size of a Cabinet somewhat—Biden’s Cabinet had greater minority representation than that of former President Donald Trump. In the latter, racial minorities served in 20% of posts, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.

Biden was essentially on par with Barack Obama (40% of whose Cabinet was minorities) and George W. Bush (36%). Bill Clinton’s mark of a 43% minority representation in the Cabinet is still the record and was remarkable for its increase over previous administrations.

In 2023, just 32% of all federal judges are women (though women make up over 50% of the U.S. population). However, as of Feb. 1, 2024, President Biden had confirmed a total of 175 judges, with 65% of them being women.

Diversity in the U.S. Congress

The 117th Congress, which sat from January 2021 to January 2023, made history as the most racially and ethnically diverse in American history. About a quarter of voting members were racial or ethnic minorities. That continued an upward trend toward greater diversity as it was the sixth Congress in a row to set such a record, according to the Pew Research Center.

In total, 124 of the 535 voting House and Senate members were Black, Latinx/Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Native American. That’s a significant increase from just 20 years ago when the 107th Congress had 63 members of racial minority groups.

Here’s how racial minority groups were represented in the 117th Congress (members are allowed to choose more than one ethnic group):

  • Black: 59 (11.0%)
  • Latinx/Hispanic: 46 (8.6%)
  • Asian American: 17 (3.2%)
  • Native American: 6 (1.1%)

Breakdown of Percentages

Even so, the then-roughly 23% racial minority representation on Capitol Hill far from mirrored the U.S. as a whole, where people of color comprise 30% to 40% of the population. Though the 11% in the 117th Congress who were Black nearly matches the 13% Black population in the U.S., other groups were significantly underrepresented. 

Latinx/Hispanic residents, for example, constituted 18.5% of the U.S. population but fewer than 9% of Congress members. Asians and Pacific Islanders represented 6.1% of all Americans but made up just over 3% of federal lawmakers.

Advocates for diversity state that a lack of equitable representation can adversely impact constituents. “Beyond making Congress look a bit more like the people it’s supposed to represent, this kind of diversity matters because people’s backgrounds and life experiences can influence what issues they think are most important,” German Lopez wrote in a 2019 column for Vox.

The 118th Congress

The 118th Congress, which convened on Jan. 3, 2023, has increased the diversity of the House and Senate slightly more.

As in the 117th Congress, the racial and ethnic minority members on Capitol Hill in 2023 have a greater presence on the left side of the aisle—80% are Democrats while 20% are Republicans. However, that ideological gap has shrunk, certainly so when compared with the 116th Congress. Only 10% of those members who were people of color belonged to the GOP.

U.S. Courts

With just three racial minority judges, the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t any better than Congress at reflecting the American landscape.

These three justices are Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice, Clarence Thomas, the second Black justice (Thurgood Marshall was the first), and Kentanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female justice appointed to the Court. Together, they represent 33% of the Court’s membership.

When looking at the history of the court, the lack of racial and ethnic minority justices is striking. Of the 115 individuals to serve on the nation’s highest bench, only four have been people of color: Marshall, Thomas, Sotomayor, and Jackson.

Meanwhile, only six have been women—Sandra Day O’Connor (1981 to 2006), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993 to 2020), Sonia Sotomayor (2009 to present), Elena Kagan (2010 to present), Amy Coney Barrett (2020 to present), and most recently, Ketanji Brown Jackson (2022 to present).

When looking at the federal courts as a whole—including circuit and district courts—racial and ethnic minority representation is not reflective of the U.S. population.

According to data from the American Bar Association, of the 1,423 active federal judges as of Oct. 1, 2023, only about 23% are people of color. Here’s the breakdown: 

  • White: 1,082—76% (vs. 59% of population)
  • Black: 163—11.5% (vs. 13.6% of population)
  • Latinx/Hispanic: 104—7.3% (vs. 19.1% of population)
  • Asian American: 51—3.6% (vs. 6.3% of population)
  • Native American: 4—0.3% (vs. 1.3% of population)

Note: The above figures do not total 1,423 because some individuals identified as partially a particular race.

Representation at the State Level

Though racial and ethnic minorities have made important gains at the federal level, state and local governments are behind in terms of achieving diversity.

Governors

Nowhere is the lack of diversity more evident than in governors’ mansions across the country. Today, only four of the 50 states are led by someone who is non-White:

  • Maryland—Governor Wes Moore is Black
  • New Hampshire—Governor Chris Sununu’s father was born in Cuba
  • New Mexico—Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is a Mexican-American
  • Oklahoma—Governor Kevin Stitt is a Native American (Cherokee Nation)

There have been only five Black governors, and just three—Douglas Wilder of Virginia, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, and the aforementioned Moore of Maryland—were elected. The other two, including David Paterson, who served as New York’s governor from 2008 to 2010, assumed the job after their predecessors were pushed out of office.

1

The number of Black Americans currently serving as state governor in America.

State Legislators

Despite modest gains for racial and ethnic minorities over the past few years, state legislatures are still overwhelmingly White. Black Americans represent 10% of all state lawmakers across the country, up from 9% in 2015, according to a 2020 study (the most recent available) from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Latinx/Hispanic membership in state legislatures remains at 5%, less than a third of their share of the overall population (New Mexico has the highest percentage, at 35%). With only 2% of legislative seats, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also significantly underrepresented. Native Americans comprise 1% of such posts, according to NCSL figures.

Mayoral Representation

America’s cities are more diverse than the U.S. population as a whole. And while that’s somewhat reflected in the list of big-city mayors, they’re not equitably represented. 

According to the City Mayors Foundation, a little more than one-third of America’s 100 largest cities are or have been led by someone who is Black. That list includes several prominent current or former woman mayors: Lori Lightfoot (Chicago), London Breed (San Francisco), Muriel Bowser (Washington, D.C.), and Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta).

In fact, the two largest cities in America—New York and Los Angeles—are led by Black mayors. The overwhelming majority of Black mayors have been Democrats. For instance, of the 55 Black mayors of cities and large towns in 2020, only one was Republican, and four were independents.

Latinx Representation

Considering the size of the Latino and Hispanic population in many of America’s urban areas, the lack of the group’s urban representation is particularly conspicuous. Among the nation’s 50 largest cities, two notable examples are Regina Romero of Tucson, Arizona and Francis Suarez of Miami, Florida that have Latin heritage.

Among the possible explanations, experts say, are election laws that sometimes hurt Latinx/Hispanic voter turnout, as well as a political system that rewards candidates—often Whites—who are supported by their party’s establishment.

“These parties and their donors, they’re very influential, but in many cases, Latinos are receiving limited support from the important actors as they’re trying to launch their campaign,” Angela Ocampo, a University of Michigan political science professor, told USA Today.

Notable Asian American mayors include Michelle Wu of Boston, Massachusetts and Sheng Thao of Oakland, California. In addition, Karen Goh of Bakersfield, California, and former Mayor of Anaheim, California Harry Sidhu, both of whom were born in India. Each were the first Asian American to assume their respective office, apart from Thao.

How Many Women Have Served as Supreme Court Justices?

Only six women have served as justices on the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor made history when she joined the Court in 1981, becoming the first woman to serve. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka “The Notorious RBG”) served from 1993 to 2020 as the first Jewish woman on the Court and was known widely for her dissents.

Sonia Sotomayor was appointed in 2009, becoming the first Latinx to sit on SCOTUS. In 2009, Elena Kagan became the first woman to serve as solicitor general of the United States and was confirmed to the Supreme Court the following year. Amy Coney Barrett was appointed in 2020 and Kentanji Brown Jackson joined the Court in 2022.

How Did Kamala Harris Make History?

Kamala D. Harris was sworn in as the vice president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021. That day, she became the first woman, the first Black person, the first Asian American, and the first graduate of an HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) to hold that office. In her election acceptance speech, Harris said, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.”

How Long Do Supreme Court Justices Serve?

Justices serve for life, remaining in office until they resign, die, or are impeached and removed from office. The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the country and the only part of the federal judiciary specifically required by the Constitution. Congress sets the number of Supreme Court justices, whom the president nominates and the Senate confirms.

The Bottom Line

Racial and ethnic minority groups have had difficulty throughout American history in reaching meaningful positions of leadership. The good new is that is changing, slowly.

These groups tend to be better represented in appointed positions, particularly at the federal level. But in Congress, and especially at the state and local levels of government, people of color who are candidates for elected office often still struggle to reach office. Despite these headwinds, the two largest cities in America are led by people of color, and a growing number of municipalities are seeing greater diversity among elected officials.

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