The 116th Congress has more women and people of color than ever – but there’s still room to improve

Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at her midterm election night party in New York City, Nov. 6, 2018. Reuters/Andrew Kelly

The 116th Congress has more women and people of color than ever – but there’s still room to improve

Women and people of color made substantial gains in the 2018 midterm elections toward diversifying the House and the Senate.

For the past three and a half decades, my co-author, G. William Domhoff, and I have been monitoring diversity in what sociologist C. Wright Mills called “the power elite” – those in the most influential positions in the corporate, political and military spheres.

We’ve found that, since the 1950s, corporations, political bodies and the military have diversified, but at a glacial pace and in different ways. Women, for example, made it into the corporate and political elites well before they were allowed to join the military elite.

The elections for the 116th Congress led to meaningful increases in diversity, especially among women, Latinos and African-Americans. The media have made a great deal of the gains in diversity – for example, this election saw the first two Native American women elected to Congress, as well as the first two Muslim women.

Let’s put these examples into the context of historical changes in diversity in Congress.

Women in Congress

In 1956, the year Mills’s classic book, “The Power Elite,” was published, there were 17 women in the House. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, was the only woman in the Senate.

By the year 2000, the number in the House had increased, slowly but surely, to 58, and the number in the Senate was up to nine.

The single biggest jump came as a result of the 1992 election, when the 102nd Congress went from 6.7 to 10.8 percent women in the House, and from 2 to 7 percent in the Senate. That’s why 1992 is often referred to as “the Year of the Woman.”

Since the year 2000, the number of women in the House and the Senate has increased steadily. This year’s election for the 116th Congress continued the trend. It provided the second-biggest bounce ever in the House, from 89 to at least 98. (As I write this, 10 races are still too close to call.) That’s a jump from 20.5 to 23.0 percent – not quite as big a jump as in 1992, but close.

In the Senate, the number increased by one or two, depending on a run-off election that will take place in Mississippi.

What about people of color?

African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans have been much more likely to be elected to the House than the Senate. Election to the Senate requires an appeal to voters throughout the state, not just in the district in which one lives, and that makes it more challenging because the districts are often more distinctive ethnically.

All three groups were at their peak in the Senate in the 115th Congress, with four Latinos, three African-Americans and three Asian-Americans. The only change that might result from this election is if Mike Espy, an African-American, wins that run-off election in Mississippi.

In the House, Africans-Americans made up 10.7 percent of the Representatives, Latinos made up 9.4 percent and Asians made up 3 percent. As a result of this election, the percentages of African-Americans and Latinos will increase slightly, while the percentage of Asian-Americans will stay about the same.

It’s worth keeping in mind that African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the total population. Latinos make up about 16 percent of the total population, and Asian-Americans make up slightly less than 6 percent. All three groups, therefore, have been historically underrepresented in Congress, but they are better represented in the House than the Senate.

The drop in the number of white men in the Senate and the House has been steady and dramatic. The decline in white male representation has been gradual but considerable – from 95 percent in both the House and the Senate in the 90th Congress to 60 percent of the House and 71 percent of the Senate. White men make up only about 38 percent of the larger population, so even with their losses over time, they are still very much overrepresented.

Republicans in Congress continue to be, for the most part, a party of white men. About 41 percent of the Democrats but 88 percent of the Republicans in the House are white men. In the Senate, they make up about 63 percent of the Democrats but 82 percent of the Republicans.

There is a bit more diversity than I have indicated, as some of those white men are Jewish or openly LGBT, two of the newly elected women are Native Americans and two are Muslims. Again, however, almost all of this added diversity was in the Democratic, not the Republican, party.

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