Of the 100 current U.S. Senators, 91% are non-Hispanic and white. In the U.S. House of Representatives, 88% of Members are in the same demographic group. These current percentages are a historic high level of ethnic diversity.
It’s still not very diverse. The United States as a whole has about 60% non-Hispanic whites, a far lower percentage than in either branch of Congress.
David Leonhardt recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times suggesting that the Senate, the less diverse part of Congress, “allows a minority of Americans — white Americans — to wield the power of a majority.”
Leonhardt suggests that this imbalance is caused by the structure of the Senate. In the House, each state has a number of representatives determined by the population of the State. Larger States have more representatives. In the Senate, each State has two representatives.
The objective of the Founding Fathers was to make sure that big states like California don’t completely dwarf the influence of small states like Rhode Island. But it is possible to conclude, as Leonhardt does, that the individual citizens of Rhode Island have more influence than the individual citizens of California.
States with smaller populations have higher percentages of white residents, Leonhardt says, so white people as a whole have more power in the legislature.
The states with the largest percentage of non-Hispanic white residents are:
- Vermont 95.4%
- Maine 94.8%
- West Virginia 93.7%
- New Hampshire 93.4%
- Iowa 90.9%
- North Dakota 90.2%
- Montana 88.3%
- Kentucky 88.1%
- Wyoming 87.7%
- South Dakota 86.5%
The states with the smallest populations:
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
- North Dakota
There is some overlap between the two lists, but it is not true that the smallest states always have the whitest populations.
AP Government exams ask why the Senate is less demographically diverse than the House. One theory is that Senate races are more expensive, and white candidates tend to get more funding.
Whatever the reason, Leonhardt has a suggestion for how to fix the Senate’s diversity problem. “Right now, about four million American citizens have almost no congressional voting power,” he points out. “Of these four million people — these citizens denied representative democracy — more than 90 percent are black or Hispanic.”
Leonhardt is talking about Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. About half of D.C.’s residents are African American, and 98% of Puerto Rico’s residents are Hispanic. If these two areas become states, he says, there will very probably be an increase in the level of diversity in the Senate.
“Granting statehood has been a regular part of this country’s history,” says Leonhardt. “It happened in every decade from the Constitution’s ratification in the 1780s through the 1910s, when Arizona and New Mexico joined. Then it happened again in 1959, with Alaska and Hawaii. That most recent expansion was now 59 years ago, which means the country has never gone so long without adding a new state.”
Leonhardt’s idea was picked up by a USA Today/CNN commentator Kristen Powers who tweeted (@KirstenPowers): “Read @DLeonhardt today: ‘4 million American citizens have almost no congressional voting power…Of these 4 million people — these citizens denied representative democracy — more than 90 percent are black or Hispanic.’ I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.nyti.ms/2QPRPFc ”
Leonhardt calculates that the United States as a whole has .30 senators per million people — but .35 for non-Hispanic whites and just .15 for Hispanics. This, he suggests, means that Hispanics have less than half as much representation as non-Hispanic whites.
Leonhardt acknowledges that adding two states wouldn’t make the legislature much more diverse, but he feels that it would be a step toward fairness. “It would help revive the basic ideals of American democracy,” he suggests, “which could very much use some reviving.”