Leveraging Diversity in the New Congress

Cassandra Butts and Janet Murguía ask the record number of people of color in the 110th Congress to unite on key progressive issues of the day.

As the 110th Congress got underway its members rose in unison to applaud this historic first—Nancy Pelosi becoming the first woman Speaker of the House. Yet another historic milestone received much less attention. The new Congress boasts the largest number of African American, Latino, and Asian members in the history of the United States.

This accomplishment is equally worthy of celebration because of what it says about our progress as a nation. When we can elect people of color to state-wide offices and in districts where minorities do not represent the majority of the population, all Americans can be justifiably proud. This progress, however, also speaks to the challenges that lie ahead in the 110th Congress.

The members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus will play critical roles in defining the issues that will shape the character of the new Congress as they assume new congressional committee and subcommittee chairmanships. If the growing diversity of Congress is remarked upon at all, it draws press coverage because of the potential for tensions, particularly between the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. But this misses the bigger picture of the opportunities that will unite the three caucuses.

African American, Latino, and Asian members of Congress can work together to leverage the power of their greater numbers on issues that will advance a progressive opportunity agenda for their communities. That agenda should begin with education, which has historically been the lynchpin for expanding opportunities for communities of color. Addressing the educational issues that create early stumbling blocks for achievement for Latinos and African Americans is critical. At the forefront, the high school dropout rate must be addressed. With an overall on-time graduation rate of 70 percent for all students, Latinos and African Americans lag behind at 50 percent to 55 percent, respectively.

This has direct implications for future employment opportunities because the unemployment rate for high schools dropouts is twice that of high school graduates. A new proposal by the Center for American Progress and Jobs for the Future—the Graduation Promise Act—has the potential to close the gap in graduation rates by investing in the following: state and local strategies to improve graduation rates without compromising academic standards; empirically proven models at the state and district levels through competitive grants; immediate intervention in the lowest performing high schools in each state; and better data-gathering capacities to identify the high schools that are losing the most students reliably.

Investments in education are smart down payments on the future, but so too are critical issues encompassing workforce development and expanded economic opportunities. An end to the conservative tax cuts for the wealthy is an important first step, yet a proactive agenda that puts a greater focus on the issues of concern to low- and middle-income families—who are at the heart of growing economic inequality—should be a rallying cry for the Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific caucuses.

With an emphasis on work-based strategies and small business development, the economic issues on their agendas should include: an increase in the minimum wage; an expansion of the earned income tax credit; workforce training to assist low income workers in entering and succeeding in the workforce; and greater access to financial supports for those seeking to start and sustain small businesses. The National Council of La Raza’s work on employment and economic issues, especially its Economic Mobility Initiative, are models for increased federal support.

Finally, comprehensive immigration reform must be on the agenda. No issue will have a greater impact on the lives of millions and better represent the true conscience of the 110th Congress. African Americans have long recognized a common struggle with immigrant communities. Historically, the Congressional Black Caucus has been one of the most consistently pro-immigrant caucuses in the House.

In addition, members of the Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific caucuses represent some of the most ethnically diverse districts with strong immigrant ties. While not without tensions on issues of competition among low-wage workers, there are growing examples of immigrant and African American workers uniting with a common purpose to better their working conditions.

Indeed, the new Congress has a major opportunity to make immigration reform a vehicle for strengthening protections for all workers in the U.S. With the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, John Conyers (D-MI), poised to lead the House Judiciary Committee, the three caucuses have an opportunity to lead a bipartisan majority on immigration reform that addresses a major national problem in a constructive, progressive way.

As the 110th Congress begins deliberations on education, workforce development, economic opportunity, and immigration reform, there will undoubtedly be stumbling blocks that will challenge the unity and natural allegiance of African American, Latino, and Asian members of Congress. Overcoming these challenges will be critical, yet there are infinite possibilities for this group of legislators to work in concert to advance an agenda of opportunity for their communities and, by extension, create a stronger and more just America.

Cassandra Butts is Senior Vice President for Domestic Policy at the Center for American Progress and Janet Murguía is the President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.

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