For decades, politicians have bellowed that all are equal, that racial barriers are relics of the past and that anyone can be anything in the land of opportunity. The inauguration of our first black president eight years ago was a dazzling affirmation of such a promise; if there was ever a testament to the power of the American dream and personal ingenuity, this was the pinnacle. We had shown the world that through uncompromising grit and hard work, anyone can help lead our government — or so we thought.
For millions of minority Americans, structural poverty and systemic issues still keep many from achieving the highest ideals of their dreams. Although there is no law explicitly barring minorities from running for office, the issues of campaign finance, gerrymandered districts and structural poverty foster an environment in which too many minorities are excluded from participating in our electoral process.
The Obama outlier is not indicative of the reality many people of color face, and in fact, public office is still an elusive goal for many. If we truly believe the American promise that hard work and following the rules elicits success, then we must do better.
Amid all the fanfare of the 2017 presidential inauguration, The United States welcomed the most diverse Congress in its history. However, such hollow proclamations of diversity fall flat once one steps away from the brush strokes and analyzes the whole painting.
Although black Americans make up around 13.2 percent of the total U.S. population, there are only three black Senators, or 3 percent of the U.S. Senate. Likewise, Hispanics make up 17.8 percent of the U.S. population, yet only 7.8 percent of representatives are Hispanic. Similar compositions are found around the country in state legislatures, city halls and in courts.
One may argue that such is the nature of the beast, and that we should not worry about the demographics of our legislators; however, if we believe that representative democracy’s role is to properly reflect the people, it is clear that we are falling short.
Why don’t we have more minority legislators? One key factor is finances. The average cost of a Senate race is $10.5 million per candidate, and in 2016, key races in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire cost more than $100 million each.
In the House, the average race costs $1.5 million. Most Americans do not have such financial resources or networking at their disposal, and these matters are further compounded by the fact that decades of unequal opportunity and systemic discrimination have economically disadvantaged minority Americans.
According to a recent Forbes article, “the typical black household now has just 6 percent of the wealth of the typical white household; the typical Latino household has just 8 percent.” It is clear that a system that gives an advantage to those with financial resources harms communities of color.
These barriers are further entrenched by gerrymandered districts, which consistently disenfranchise minority populations. This is evidenced by a host of Supreme Court decisions, most notably the 2016 decision to strike down North Carolina’s redistricting map for suppressing the minority vote. Incumbents in Congress also have more resources to fundraise, network and have free name recognition, meaning that those in power tend to stay in power, in fact at an average 90 percent re-election rate.
Solving these problems will not be easy, but it is necessary. We must address the underlying issues: investing in our public schools to increase social mobility, improving our public safety net, restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act and reforming our campaign finance and congressional districting laws.
Although having more minorities in Congress is not the be-all, end-all for racial justice, it is one step we must take toward truly having a representative democracy. If we tell our children that with hard work and determination, anyone can become anything in this country, then we must ensure that such a promise is upheld.
Trevor O’Connor is a freshman in the College.
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