WASHINGTON — As senators chart a response to a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis that have disproportionately hurt Black Americans and other people of color, the top aides leading their offices are overwhelmingly white — far more so than the country as a whole.
Just 11 percent of top staff members in senators’ Washington offices — the key aides who draft legislation, coordinate public communications and vet nominees for executive branch posts and lifetime judgeships — are people of color, according to a new study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan think tank that pushes for greater racial diversity in government. By comparison, close to 40 percent of Americans are people of color, and 9 percent of senators.
Of the 100 members of the Senate, 72 — including Republicans and Democrats representing states with large minority populations, like Texas, Maryland, Georgia, Florida and Arizona — did not employ a single person of color as one of their top personal aides when researchers made their initial tallies in January 2020. Only four, all Democrats, employed more than one such top aide, defined by the study as chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors in senators’ personal offices in Washington.
“People of color are underrepresented in various occupations, but a lack of diversity among top Senate staff warrants special attention because Senate decisions affect everyone in the nation,” LaShonda Brenson, the lead researcher, wrote in an introduction to the coming study, which was shared with The New York Times in advance of its release.
“The lack of racial diversity among top staff is not a partisan issue but a challenge that the Senate — as an institution — must address,” she added.
The report showed that the chamber’s top aides have grown slightly more diverse since 2015, the last time the group conducted a similar study in the Senate and found that 7.1 percent of top staff members in personal offices were people of color. The percentage of top aides who are Black increased most rapidly, to 3.1 percent this year from less than 1 percent in 2015, though that figure is still far below the 13.4 percent of Americans who are Black.
Other groups saw more modest gains or even declines since 2015. Researchers found that 3.8 percent of top Senate staff members were Latino, compared with 18.5 percent of the total population and 2.4 percent in 2015; 2.7 percent were Asian-American or Pacific Islander, compared with 6.1 percent of the total population and 3.7 percent of top staff members in 2015. Smaller numbers were identified as biracial or Middle Eastern and North African.
As of January, researchers did not find a single Native American who filled one of the top positions in any senator’s personal office.
Omitted from these tallies are state directors, often senators’ top aides on the ground at home; committee staff members; or staff aides working in Democratic and Republican leadership offices, which wield considerable power. Ms. Brenson said analysis of those positions would be forthcoming. Several deputy chiefs of staff are people of color, but not all senators employ someone in that position, so researchers did not include it in the full study.
Of the 99 chiefs of staff counted by the study, only eight were people of color — four African-Americans, three Latinos and one Asian-American or Pacific Islander. Slightly more legislative directors, 14, were people of color, as were 10 communications directors.
The Times did not independently verify all the data, which was based on employment records of senators’ personal offices captured in January 2020.
Leaders for nonpartisan staff associations representing congressional aides of color said those numbers simply were not good enough and urged lawmakers to accelerate the empowering of minority staff members to live up to the values they profess in floor speeches and campaigns.
“The glaring lack of diversity among senior staff in the Senate should serve as a wake-up call to everyone,” said Jonathan Carter, the president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.
Alice Lin and Liz Lee, the leaders of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association, said they were “alarmed and disappointed by the dramatic decrease in the percentage of Asian-American and Pacific Islander staffers.” Christine Godinez, president of the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, lamented that the Senate work force still lacked “diversity at every level five years later — especially at the top.”
And Didier Barjon, the president of the Congressional Black Associates, argued that the numbers had clear policy implications. “If there are more Black staffers in senior-level roles, we would have a better opportunity to address the current pandemic, as well as longstanding issues that disproportionately affect our communities,” he said.
In an interview, Ms. Brenson agreed that the paucity of aides of color had only become a more urgent problem since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in the winter and the mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism that erupted in May. Covid-19 has disproportionately infected and killed Black and Latino Americans, and in many cases, those same groups have been hit the hardest by the economic recession it spawned.
Having top advisers who can broaden lawmakers’ perspectives about how different racial and ethnic communities are affected can help lead to policy responses that better serve all Americans, Ms. Brenson argued.
“If there were more diverse staff that could speak to senators about potential blind spots that may occur in the legislation, I think the legislation would be more responsive to the needs of minority communities,” she said.
She pointed to the Paycheck Protection Program, one of the pillars of the $2.2 trillion economic relief package Congress passed in March. The program has been popular and disbursed billions of dollars propping up small businesses, but studies have shown that minority-owned businesses, and especially Black-owned businesses, have struggled to secure the loans, a policy failure that could decimate Black businesses and communities that rely on them.
Congress’s hiring decisions also ripple well beyond Capitol Hill. House and Senate offices serve as pipelines to Washington’s major power centers: the White House, executive branch agencies, lobbying firms and nongovernmental organizations, as well as state governments.
Top staff members in the House of Representatives are somewhat more diverse.
A 2018 study by the Joint Center found that 13.7 percent of top staff members in the House were people of color. After Democrats reclaimed control of the House in 2019, ushering in the most racially diverse Congress in history, the group updated its tallies and found that the figure had risen to nearly 21 percent.
In the Senate, Democrats are significantly more likely to employ a top aide of color. Racial minorities made up only 4 percent of top staff members for Republican senators, compared with 19 percent for Democrats.
In recent years, Senate Democrats have undertaken a diversity initiative meant to help recruit, vet and retain a pool of candidates for job openings in the Senate. They have also instituted a rule asking Democratic offices to interview at least one minority candidate for each job opening.
The caucus releases its own statistics on the racial makeup of all staff aides working for each Democratic senator and the party’s committee offices. In 2020, the percentages of staff members who identify as nonwhite ranged from just 8 percent in the office of Senator Jon Tester of Montana to 65 percent in the office of Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. But the caucus does not indicate who fills which roles, making it difficult to discern the kinds of roles people of color are filling.
Alex Nguyen, a spokesman for the Democratic leader, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, said the caucus was “working to increase that diversity on all levels.”
Senate Republicans have no comparable initiative and do not publicly share staff statistics. A spokesman for Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, declined to comment on the report.