Addressing the lack of diversity in the US Senate

Stephen Piggott • Jan 10, 2009

When Barak Obama left his seat in the US Senate he left behind a government institution that has no African Americans.

When I was researching the number of African Americans throughout history who have been elected to the US Senate I was shocked to learn that since 1870, there have only been five. Today there are about 23 million African Americans living in the United States but not one in the Senate. Before Barak Obama there was another senator from Illinois, Carol Moseley Braun, who was a senator from 1993-1999.

Before Mrs. Braun there was Edward Brooke who held a seat from 1967-1979. But before Mr. Brooke you have to go back a long, long way, all the way back to 1881 to find the last time an African American was part of the elite.

That gap of some 86 years is more than 3 times larger than the 2nd largest gap of an all white senate, 24 years between Edward Brooke and Mrs. Moseley Braun. Back in 1881 it was a former slave from Mississippi who held the seat, her name was Blanche Bruce. And before Blanche we have the first ever African American in the Senate, a man by the name of Hiram Rhodes Revels. In the 239 years since Mr. Revels took office only 4 other African Americans have followed in his footsteps, a truly astounding and deeply disturbing fact.

In 2009 we will inaugurate the first African American president but it is also a year where we could see an all white congress. Obama’s open seat has caused more than a stir with many factors going into the massive decision over who to replace him. The decision ultimately lies in the hands of the governor of Illinois, the disgraced Rod Blagojevich. In Illinois, even if the governor is behind bars he still can appoint a replacement senator. This week Mr. Blagojevich made his decision, choosing 71 year old African American Roland Burris. This appointment was rejected by Senate Democrats as well as Barak Obama. Both believe that any appointment by the governor who is facing an investigation on charges of selling the Senate seat is not legitimate.

The fact that Mr. Burris is an African American has nothing to do with the rejection of his appointment but it also is another PR disaster for the democrats. It could appear that the democrats are rejecting the appointment of an African American man to an all white Senate. I personally agree with Barak Obama who believes the people of Illinois should decide who their next senator is and I sincerely hope Illinois voters would choose an African American.

Of the 23 million African Americans living in the United States there are many good Senate candidates who if given the opportunity would make fine Senators. One example is Hank Johnson; an up and coming representative from Georgia who was elected to the House in 2007 and has made a great impression in his first 2 years in office. He was recently elected as a regional whip by the Democratic Caucus, a very rare occurrence for one so new to the House.

In the year 2050 whites will not be the majority in the United States. As the number of white Americans declines the number of minorities and women in the US congress especially the Senate must increase. Minorities and women have some representation in the House, but they need much more in the Senate. Each year the United States becomes more and more diverse, and government institutions must reflect that. I fully expect there to be some level of diversity in the Senate by the time we hit the year 2050 but that is too late. The problem exists and needs to be addressed today. The election of an African American to the most powerful leadership position internationally, President of the United States, is definitely cause for optimism but it is not enough.

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