Government Leadership by Race

Racial and ethnic minorities still underrepresented in elected office and courts

Racial and ethnic minority groups constitute a growing segment of the U.S. population, although their share of government leadership roles doesn’t always reflect that. While people of color 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 and ethnic makeup of various leadership positions in the United States. 

Key Takeaways

  • President Biden vowed to make his Cabinet the most diverse in U.S. history to represent the nation's population better.
  • While Congress is more diverse than it has ever been, the overwhelming majority of its members are White.
  • When Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president, she made history as the first woman and first woman of color to hold that office.
  • Members of underrepresented 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/Hispanic mayors are even less represented.

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.” Biden made good on that promise: Data from the White House shows the Biden-Harris Administration is the most diverse government in U.S. history.

Of course, Biden already had a 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 Jamaican father—is also the first person of color 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 racial minorities. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, 60% of Americans identify as White only. About 18.5% are Latinx/Hispanic, 13.4% are Black or African American, and 6.1% claim Asian or Pacific Islander heritage. Another 1.3% identify as Native American or Alaska Native. 

Of the 15 highest-ranking posts in Biden’s Cabinet—those in the line of succession to the presidency—Biden’s six non-White nominees represent 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, a Cuban American, as the first Latinx/Hispanic head of Homeland Security.

In all, Biden's "core" Cabinet appointments include:

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 former President Donald Trump’s, where racial minorities served in 20% of posts, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. Biden is essentially on par with Barack Obama (40% of his Cabinet were minorities) and George W. Bush (36%). Bill Clinton’s mark of 43% minority representation in the Cabinet is still the record and marked a steep increase from previous administrations.

Diversity in U.S. Congress

The 117th Congress made history as the most racially and ethnically diverse in American history. About a quarter of voting members are racial or ethnic minorities. 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/Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Native American. That’s a significant increase from just 20 years ago when the 107th Congress had 63 members of racial minority groups.

Here’s how racial minority groups are represented today in Congress (members are allowed to choose more than one ethnic group):

  • Black: 59 (11.0%)
  • Latinx/Hispanic: 46 (8.6%)
  • Asian American: 17 (3.2%)
  • Native American: 6 (1.1%)

Even so, the roughly 23% racial minority representation on Capitol Hill today is far from mirroring the U.S. as a whole, where people of color comprise roughly 40% of the population. While the 11% who are Black nearly matches the 13% Black population in the U.S., other groups are significantly underrepresented. 

Latinx/Hispanic residents, for example, constitute 18.5% of the U.S. population but fewer than 9% of Congress members. Asians and Pacific Islanders represent 6.1% of all Americans but make up just over 3% of federal lawmakers.

Advocates for diversity state that a lack of equitable representation can adversely impact constituents. “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.

Minority Representation in the Senate and House of Representatives

Overwhelmingly, the racial and ethnic minority members on Capitol Hill stand on the left side of the aisle—83% are Democrats versus 17% from the Republican Party. However, that ideological gap has shrunk considerably, even compared with the 116th Congress. Just two years ago, only 10% of members who were people of color belonged to the GOP.

U.S. Courts

With just two racial minority judges, the U.S. Supreme Court isn't any better than Congress in reflecting the American landscape. Only two justices aren't White—Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latinx justice, and Clarence Thomas, the second Black justice (Thurgood Marshall was the first). The two represent only 22% of the Court's membership.

When looking at the history of the court, the lack of racial and ethnic minority justices is striking. Of the 115 individuals to serve on the nation’s highest bench, only three have been people of color. Remarkably, only five have been women—Sandra Day O'Connor (1981-2006), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993-2020), Sonia Sotomayor (2009-present), Elena Kagan (2010-present), and Amy Coney Barrett (2020-present).

When looking at the federal courts as a whole—including circuit and district courts—racial and ethnic minority representation is no higher. According to data from the Federal Judicial Center, of the 1,436 active federal judges, only 20% are people of color. Here’s the breakdown by race: 

  • White: 1,154 (80.3%)
  • Black: 136 (9.5%)
  • Latinx/Hispanic: 93 (6.5%)
  • Asian American: 38 (2.6%)
  • Native American: 2 (0.1%)

Representation at the State Level

While racial and ethnic minorities have made important gains at the federal level, state and local governments are behind in terms of achieving diversity.

Governors

Nowhere is the lack of diversity more evident than in governors’ mansions across the country. Today, only three of the 50 states are led by someone who is not White:

  • Hawaii—Governor David Ige is of Okinawan descent
  • New Mexico—Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is a Mexican American
  • Oklahoma—Governor Kevin Stitt is a Native American (Cherokee Nation)

There are currently no Black 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.

0

The number of Black Americans currently serving as governor in the U.S.

State Legislators

Despite modest gains for racial and ethnic minorities over the past few years, state legislatures are still overwhelmingly White. Black Americans represent 10% of all state lawmakers across the country, up from 9% in 2015, according to a 2020 study (the most recent available) from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Latinx/Hispanic 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, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also significantly underrepresented. Native Americans comprise 1% of such posts, according to NCSL figures.

Mayoral Representation

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. 

According to the City Mayors Foundation, a little more than one-third of America's 100 largest cities are led by someone who is Black. That list includes several prominent woman mayors: Lori Lightfoot (Chicago), London Breed (San Francisco), Muriel Bowser (Washington, DC), and Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta).

The overwhelming majority of Black mayors are Democrats, according to the City Mayors Foundation. Of 55 Black mayors of cities and large towns, only one is a Republican, and four are Independents.

Considering the size of the Latinx/Hispanic population in many of America’s urban areas, the lack of the group's urban representation 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/Hispanic 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.

How Many Women Have Served as Supreme Court Justices?

Only five women have served as justices on the Supreme Court. (If President Biden's nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson wins confirmation, she will become the sixth.) Sandra Day O'Connor made history when she became the first woman to serve the Court in 1981. Ruth Bader Ginsberg ("The Notorious RBG") served from 1993-2020 as the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court, known widely for her dissents.

Sonia Sotomayor was appointed in 2009, becoming the first Latina to sit on SCOTUS. In 2009, Elena Kagan became the first woman to serve as solicitor general of the United States and was confirmed to the Supreme Court the following year. Amy Coney Barrett was appointed in 2020 and is the fifth woman to serve on the Court.

How Did Kamala Harris Make History?

Kamala D. Harris was sworn in as the Vice President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021. That day, she became the first woman, the first Black person, the first Asian American, and the first graduate of an HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) to hold that office. In her election acceptance speech, Harris said, "While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last."

How Long Do Supreme Court Justices Serve?

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the country and the only part of the federal judiciary specifically required by the Constitution. Congress sets the number of Supreme Court justices, who the President nominates, and the Senate confirms. Justices serve for life, remaining in office until they resign, die, or are impeached and removed from office.

The Bottom Line

Racial and ethnic 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, people of color who are candidates for elected office still often struggle to gain traction.

Article Sources

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  1. Vogue. "Biden’s Cabinet May Be ‘The Most Diverse in History,’ But Is That Diverse Enough?"

  2. Pew Research Center. "Racial, Ethnic Diversity Increases Yet Again With the 117th Congress."

  3. City Mayors Foundation. "African American Mayors."

  4. USA Today. "Latinos Make Up Only 1% of All Local and Federal Elected Officials, and That’s a Big Problem."

  5. The White House. "Join the Biden-Harris Administration."

  6. The White House. "Fact Sheet: 100 Days in, Biden-Harris Administration Makes History With Presidential Appointees."

  7. The White House. "Kamala Harris."

  8. U.S. Census Bureau. "QuickFacts United States."

  9. Brookings. "Just How Diverse Is President Biden’s Prospective Cabinet?"

  10. Vox. "This Is the Most Diverse Congress Ever. But It's Still Pretty White."

  11. Supreme Court of the United States. "FAQs - Supreme Court Justices."

  12. Federal Judicial Center. "Demography of Article III Judges, 1789-2020."

  13. Rutgers University. "American Governors 2019."

  14. NPR. "50 States and No Black Governors, But That Could Change in 2018."

  15. National Conference of State Legislatures. "The ‘Average’ State Legislator Is Changing, Slowly."

  16. Britannica. "Eric Garcetti."

  17. Bakersfield.com. "An Ordinary Person Living an Extraordinary Life."

  18. Harry Sidhu For Mayor. "Harry Sidhu Biography."

  19. The New York Times. "Read Kamala Harris's Vice President-Elect Acceptance Speech."

  20. The White House. "The Judicial Branch."

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