When Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced his running mate back in August, history was made.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, vice presidential candidate, is the first Black woman to compete on a major party’s presidential ticket. If elected on Nov. 3, Harris, who is also of South Asian descent, would be the first woman vice president in the United States and the first person of Indian heritage to hold a major political office in the country.
Harris is running in the race along with 583 women who filed as candidates for House seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). Of those, 301 won their primary and are on the ballot.
In 2018, Americans witnessed groundbreaking victories for traditionally minority communities – specifically, the election of Muslim, Black, gay and female candidates. Additionally, over 90 women were elected to the House, making history as the election that saw more women winning House seats than in any American election, according to a report by CBS News.
While the previous Congress was considered the most diverse in history, a study by Pew Research shows that the 116th Congress has seen an increase in racial and ethnic diversity, breaking the previous record. The 2020 election is set to break the record once again.
Mary Mann-Irwin, adjunct instructor of political communication at John Brown University, explains the increase of minority representation in office. “Traditionally, one of the reasons people run for office is to further the agenda of what they perceive to be a disenfranchised group or population,” she said. “Right now, people of color and ethnic minorities have never felt more underrepresented and unheard by opinion leaders, lawmakers and law enforcement. At the same time, we as a nation are more accepting of minority candidates.”
According to CAWP, at least 130 Black or multi-racial Black women filed to run for congressional seats this year. In 2020, Black women are 5.8% of all candidates for the U.S. House, while women who identify as Black alone or in combination with other races represent about 7.6% of the population, according to a recent U.S. census. Although Black women remain underrepresented in office, the gap is narrowing with every election.
“There is a trend in political science and political sociology of seeing how much representation matters,” Bella Bennett, junior political science major, said. “As minority groups see people like them represent them more and more, they also feel inspired and more capable to overcome certain barriers.”
Despite the increase in diversity over the past few years, political offices are still disproportionately held by white individuals when compared with a diverse U.S. population. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nonwhite individuals make up 39% of the nation’s population, but those numbers have yet to coincide with representation in office. According to Pew, the U.S. population is becoming less white more quickly than Congress is becoming less white.
Nevertheless, the upcoming election brings opportunities to choose candidates who represent minority communities, as diversity in representation brings changes on policymaking. “The obvious impact [of diversity in office] is that the representation of alternate points of view are now being heard on Capitol Hill, in state governments and even down to the local level,” Mann-Irwin said.
Beyond making Congress “look” diverse, representation matters because people’s backgrounds have the potential of influencing what issues they think represent their constituents better, according to a report by Vox. For instance, Rep. Ilham Omar led Congress to end the ban on headwear on the House floor, allowing the Muslim congresswoman to wear a hijab while at work.
Furthermore, political science research has found that electing more women has a noticeable effect on how governments work. According to Vox, women legislators sponsor more bills, pass more laws and get more money sent back to their districts.
Among other factors, diversity could potentially influence our voting decisions. “Diversity in politics is really important because it allows for all the people to be represented and included in our constitutional body,” Bennett said. “We really need to be more intentional about considering diversity because that allows us to be mindful of people other than ourselves.”
Despite more voters considering minority representation when favoring a candidate over the other, diversity is still a controversial topic when mixed with politics. Mann-Irwin shared a Christian approach to the topic of diversity and representation in politics. “As Christians, our political lenses should be neutral in terms of minority candidates,” she said. “Our political lens should always ask, ‘Would Jesus support this candidate for office?’ Jesus would never not support someone just because they aren’t white and American.”
Photo courtesy of Adam Schultz