If President Joe Biden’s effort to appoint the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court is successful, it will mark a major step forward in a very long journey.
A confirmation in 2022 would come 61 years after Thurgood Marshall became the first Black jurist to serve on the high court; 85 years after William Hastie became the first African American federal judge; and 150 years after Charlotte E. Ray became the first Black female lawyer in the United States.
As we celebrate Black History Month, it is worth reflecting that, even after more than two centuries of history, America continues to struggle for equal representation—and that government affairs teams have a role to play.
Gradual Progress Toward Equal Representation
It is undeniable that there has been a great deal of progress. In just the last 20 years, America has elected its first Black president and it’s first Black female vice president. And those were not the only firsts.
- Condoleeza Rice was the first Black woman to serve as Secretary of State
- Lloyd Austin is the first Black Defense Secretary
- Michael Regan is the first Black head of the Environmental Protection Agency
- Shalanda Young, if confirmed, will be the first Black woman to serve as Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
At a time when Black Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population, the House of Representatives currently has 58 Black members, which is about 13% of the chamber. There are some recent firsts there, too. Representatives Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, both of New York, became the first openly gay Black men to serve in Congress in 2020. Marilyn Strickland became the first Black woman to represent Washington state.
Yet there is also much work ahead for America’s government to be truly representative. Only 28 states have a Black lawmaker representing them in Congress. Only three Black lawmakers serve in the 100-member U.S. Senate, meaning that representation stands at just 3%.
In state legislatures, where more than 7,300 people serve as lawmakers, Black representation stands at about 10% nationwide, though it varies whether the number of lawmakers in office represents the population in any given state. There are currently no Black governors serving in the U.S. and there has never been a Black female governor in U.S. history.
Of course, representation matters and change continues. Black women are running for gubernatorial seats in six states this year: Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. November’s election could usher in another first.
What Your Organization Can Do
America’s racial climate has a direct impact on government affairs teams. When as many as 26 million people joined protests over racial injustice in 2020—the largest movement ever on U.S. soil—it helped fuel a spike in advocacy and a renewed interest in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at many organizations.
America’s demographics are also changing. The 2020 Census was the first since 1790 to show a decline in America’s white population, according to a Brookings Institution report. “America’s ‘diversity explosion’ is continuing,” the report said, adding that, “all of the nation’s 2010-to-2020 growth is attributable to people of color—those identifying as Latino or Hispanic, Black, Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Native American, and as two or more races. Together, these groups now comprise more than 40% of the U.S. population.”
The message is clear: DEI is not something effective government affairs teams can afford to ignore. Rather, diversity efforts represent an opportunity to play a leadership role and foster a DEI culture in your organization and your industry. By making strategic changes, you can help advance DEI and make a positive impact in the communities where you operate.
Here are five actions that teams can consider during Black History Month to run a more accessible and inclusive program:
- Prioritize Your Hiring. Only 17% of government affairs staffers are people of color, according to a Public Affairs Council report last year. If your team should be more diverse, begin work on that now. Even if you don’t have open positions, you can start networking and cultivating prospects for when you do. Hiring strong, diverse personnel can be an “always on” activity.
- Diversify Your List. Diversity efforts can extend to your audience. Is your list of advocates diverse? Is that something your organization even tracks? You can diversify your list by adding new supporters. Something as simple as a petition campaign in a diverse community can result in a more representative group of supporters. Membership organizations can put more effort into inclusive recruiting.
- Examine Political Support. If your organization supports candidates, ask whether you are championing a diverse group. This can sometimes be difficult for organizations with conservative views because most Black candidates are Democrats. For example, of the 58 Black lawmakers in the House, only two are Republicans (Byron Donalds of Florida and Burgess Owens of Utah). But knowing the diversity profile of the candidates you support is an important step. It will make your team more aware and open to opportunities.
- Diversify PAC Contributions. Organizations that run a political action committee can look at the diversity profile of their contributions. A study last year showed that, while Black lawmakers should be getting about 11% of congressional political contributions they only received about 6% in the 2019-20 election cycle. Your contribution profile may not be something that can be adjusted right away. But looking at contributions through a DEI prism will only make your team more aware.
- Launch and Support Campaigns. You may choose to share your organization’s DEI goals with your existing advocates, or perhaps launch a petition in support of initiatives that advance diversity. Both are easy ways to help DEI efforts. Or maybe your organization will go farther and support or oppose bills in order to advance equality. Whatever the case, a government affairs team’s ability to rally an audience can almost always be used to promote equality.
While the Black Lives Matter movement was a watershed moment in American race relations, it was not the last. Race will continue to be a major part of the national conversation. That may be particularly true in November’s election and again in the 2024 presidential contest. For government affairs teams, it represents an opportunity to have a voice and give voice to others.
As Amanda Gorman, the nation’s youth poet laureate, read in her poem about American recovery at last year’s presidential inauguration, “The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”