Members of minority groups constitute a growing segment of the U.S. population, although their share of government leadership roles doesn’t always reflect that. While non-Whites are fairly well-represented in appointed positions, such as in President Biden’s Cabinet, elected bodies at the federal and state levels have a way to go before they truly reflect the diversity of the American people.
Here’s a look at the racial makeup of various leadership positions in the United States.
- Although President Biden’s proposed Cabinet reflects the 40% of Americans who are minorities, Congress and the federal judiciary are far below that mark.
- When Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president, she became the highest-ranking minority politician in U.S. history.
- Members of minority groups have made only modest gains in state legislatures.
- While many large cities have a majority-minority population, only about a third of large cities have Black mayors and Latinx mayors are even more underrepresented.
Racial Representation in Federal Government
Shortly before entering the White House, then-President-Elect Joe Biden pledged to “build an administration that looks like America.” While many mid- and lower-level appointments have yet to be made, he appears to be making good on that promise so far.
Of course, Biden already had a major head start in that endeavor by choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate. Her rise to the second-highest post in the executive branch was historic in more ways than one. In addition to becoming the first female vice president, Harris—born to a mother from India and a father from Jamaica—is also the first non-White individual to serve in that office.
From a racial perspective, Biden’s Cabinet is also shaping up to reflect a country in which roughly 40% of the populace are minorities. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, 60% of Americans identify as White only. Roughly 18.5% are Latinx, 13.4% are Black, and 6.1% claim Asian or Pacific Islander heritage. Another 1.3% identify as Native American.
Of the 15 highest-ranking posts in Biden’s Cabinet—those who are in the line of succession to the presidency—Biden’s six non-White nominees represent exactly 40%. The choice of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, now the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet , was particularly noteworthy. Biden also tapped Lloyd Austin as the first Black person to serve as Secretary of Defense and Alejandro Mayorkas as the first Latinx head of Homeland Security.
In all, Biden’s “core” Cabinet appointments include three Latinx members (Mayorkas as well as Miguel Cardona as Education Secretary and Xavier Becerra at Health and Human Services), two Black members (Austin as well as Marcia Fudge at Housing and Urban Development) and one Native American: Haaland.
As a percentage of the key appointees—presidents can expand or contract the size of a Cabinet somewhat—Biden’s Cabinet has greater minority representation than Trump's, which had non-Whites serving in 20% of posts, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. He’s essentially on par with Obama (40% of his Cabinet were minorities) and George W. Bush (36%). Clinton’s mark of 43% minority representation in the Cabinet is still the record and marked a steep increase from the previous administrations.
The new 117th Congress made history as the most racially diverse in American history. That continues an upward trend toward greater diversity, as it’s the sixth Congress in a row to set such a record, according to the Pew Research Center.
In total, 124 of the 535 voting House and Senate members are Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American. That’s a significant increase from just 20 years ago, when the 107th Congress had 63 members of minority groups.
Here’s how that minority membership breaks out (members are allowed to choose more than one ethnic group):
- Black: 59 (11.0%)
- Hispanic: 46 (8.6%)
- Asian: 17 (3.2%)
- Native American: 6 (1.1%)
Even so, the 23% minority representation on Capitol Hill today is far from mirroring the U.S. as a whole, where roughly 40% of the population identifies as non-White. While the 11% who are Black nearly match the 13% African American population in the U.S., other groups are significantly underrepresented.
Latinx residents, for example, constitute 18.5% of the United States population, but less than 9% of Congressional membership. Asian and Pacific Islanders represent 6.1% of all Americans, they make up just over 3% of federal lawmakers.
Advocates for diversity state that lack of equitable representation can have an adverse impact on the people being represented. “Beyond making Congress look a bit more like the people it’s supposed to represent, this kind of diversity matters because people’s backgrounds and life experiences can influence what issues they think are most important,” German Lopez wrote in a 2019 column for Vox.
Overwhelmingly, the minority members on the Hill are on the left side of the aisle—83% are Democrats versus 17% from the Republic party. However, that ideological gap has shrunk considerably, even compared to the 116th Congress. Just two years ago, only 10% of non-White members belonged to the GOP.
With two minority judges, the U.S. Supreme Court it isn’t any better than Congress in terms of reflecting the American ethnic landscape. The two non-White justices—Sonia Sotomayor has Hispanic heritage and Clarence Thomas is the lone Black—represent only 22% of the Court’s membership.
When looking at the history of the Court, the lack of minority justices is particularly striking. Of the 115 individuals to serve on the nation’s highest bench, only three have been non-White (besides the two just mentioned, Thurgood Marshall, who served from 1967-1991, is the third). Remarkably, only five have been women.
When looking at the federal courts as a whole—including circuit and district courts—minority representation is no higher. Of the 1,437 active federal judges, only 20% are non-White, according to data from the Federal Judicial Center. Here’s the breakdown by race:
- White: 1,154 (80.3%)
- Black: 136 (9.5%)
- Hispanic: 93 (6.5%)
- Asian: 38 (2.6%)
- Native American: 2 (0.1%)
Representation at the State Level
While minorities have made important gains at the federal level, state and local governments are behind in terms of achieving racial diversity.
Nowhere is lack of diversity more evident than in governors' mansions across the country. Today, only two of the 50 states are led by someone who identifies as non-White: Hawaii, where Okinawan-American Dave Ige is governor, and New Mexico, whose chief executive is Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Latina.
There are currently no African American governors, which has been true for most of American history. There have been only four Black governors, and just two—Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts —were elected. The other two, including David Paterson, who served as New York’s governor from 2008 to 2010, assumed the job after their predecessor was pushed out of office.
The number of African Americans currently serving as governor in the U.S.
Despite modest gains for ethnic minorities over the past few years, state legislatures are still overwhelmingly White. African Americans represent 10% of all state lawmakers across the country, up from 9% in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Latinx membership in state legislatures remains at 5%, less than a third of their share of the overall population (New Mexico has the highest percentage, at 35%). With only 2% of legislative seats, Asians and Pacific Islanders are also significantly underrepresented. Native Americans comprise an additional 1% of such posts, according to NCSL figures.
America’s cities are more diverse than the U.S. population as a whole. And while that’s somewhat reflected in the list of big-city mayors, they’re not equitably represented.
Currently, a little more than one-third of America’s 100 largest cities are led by an African American, according to the City Mayors Foundation. That list includes several prominent female mayors: Lori Lightfoot (Chicago), London Breed (San Francisco), Muriel Bowser (Washington, D.C.), and Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta).
The overwhelming majority of Black mayors are Democrats, according to the City Mayors Foundation. Of 55 African American mayors of cities and large towns, only one is a Republican and four are Independents.
Considering the size of the Latinx population in many of America’s urban areas, the dearth of Latinx urban leaders is particularly conspicuous. Among the nation’s 50 largest cities, only Regina Romero of Tucson, Ariz., has Latin heritage, according to a 2020 USA Today piece (Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles has Mexican grandparents, but does not identify primarily as Latino).
Among the possible explanations, experts say, are election laws that sometimes hurt Latinx voter turnout as well as a political system that rewards candidates—often Whites—who are supported by their party’s establishment.
“These parties and their donors, they’re very influential, but in many cases, Latinos are receiving limited support from the important actors as they’re trying to launch their campaign,” Angela Ocampo, a University of Michigan political science professor, told USA Today.
Notable Asian American mayors include Karen Goh of Bakersfield, Calif., and Harry Sidhu of Anaheim, Calif., both of whom were born in India. Each is the first Asian American to assume their respective office.
The Bottom Line
Minority groups tend to be better-represented in appointed positions, particularly at the federal level. But in Congress, and especially at the state and local levels, non-White candidates for elected office still often struggle to gain traction.