James Jones Posits Congress as America’s Last Plantation

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As an undergraduate at George Washington University, Assistant Professor James Jones interned with two members of congress on Capitol Hill, back in 2006 and 2009. While there, he realized there was a stunning lack of diversity among congressional staff, especially those in leadership positions who hire and mentor younger members.

Shortly thereafter, Jones entered the Ph.D. program in sociology at Columbia University and pursued the topic for his dissertation. He focused on the Senate and spent several years amassing demographic data to illustrate the problem.

His findings—that just over 7 percent of senior congressional aides are people of color, while one-third of the country is—were published in a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies at the end of 2015.

Before long, at the age of 27, Jones and his study were all over the mainstream press. And earlier this year, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) pledged to adopt some of Jones’ recommendations as the Democratic Party rebuilds in the wake of the 2016 presidential election loss.

“Democrats have a lot to gain by holding themselves to a higher standard,” says Jones, who now teaches in RU-N’s Department of African American and African Studies. “The party made some headway under Sen. Harry Reid. I’m cautiously optimistic that more will be done under Schumer.”

Jones’ report recommended that the Senate start collecting and analyzing its hiring data, which Congress requires of most federal agencies but not of itself. It also urged the chamber to adopt a version of the NFL’s “Rooney rule,” requiring congressional offices to interview at least one person of color for each senior job vacancy.

Schumer says he wants to implement both items. He also promised to publish official diversity statistics from Senate offices on the Senate Diversity Initiative website, which hosts a resumé bank for potential Senate staffers of color and will be a clearinghouse for individual Democratic Senate offices looking to put diverse hiring practices in place.

Jones believes demographic data are key. Beltway insiders have known about the diversity issue for a long time, but there have been no stats, he says, and it’s the statistics that are most likely to prompt substantive change.

The problem, he says, runs deep.

“I’d be in policy meetings with members of various staffs, talking about social issues pertaining to black men, and I’d be only person of color in the room,” says Jones. “That clearly demonstrated to me that this lack of diversity has impact. You need lived experience in the room to create effective public policy.”

Jones’ report defines people of color as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. His research shows that the lack of diversity is especially glaring among African Americans, who hold 0.9 percent of top staff positions, and in the offices of senators from states with large black and Hispanic populations.

Part of the problem is that the Senate is a notoriously white male deliberative body, and that individual Senate offices each do their own hiring. But Jones contends that staff diversity should be independent of a senator’s racial background, and given that most senators come from states with racially diverse demographics, their staffs should reflect the states they represent.

Another facet of the problem is captured by Jones’ own lived experience on Capitol Hill, from what he and other black staff members call the “nod.”

“When walking the halls of Congress, we’d make eye contact and nod to each other, as a way of seeing each other and making us feel visible in a place where we felt invisible,” says Jones. “White staffers and members of Congress often consciously avoided eye contact with us—a lack of simple acknowledgment that sociologists call ‘civil inattention.’ So, the nod was a gesture of solidarity and a way to build power.”

As Jones interviewed them, it was also a gateway for staffers of color to talk about other discrimination they faced: for instance, how they get jobs and are (or are not) promoted, and what kinds of work they’re assigned.

The “nod,” therefore, ended up being a key that unlocked the broader scope of racial inequality found in Congress. Once this happened, Jones had a much better idea of where he would take his research, which will culminate in his forthcoming book, The Last Plantation, the first major study of racial inequality in the congressional workplace.

That book title draws from another kind of nod: the nickname that members of Congress and their staff apply to the legislature to highlight how it’s exempt from the very policies and principles it’s tasked to create and implement, including federal workplace laws.

“When Congress follows the same laws it creates for the rest of the country, it will be better for it. It be a better workplace and democratic institution when there’s diversity,” says Jones. “The stakes are high, and Washington insiders have known about this problem for a long time, but it needs to be publicized if things are going to change.”