“Blinded by the #white,” was one Instagrammer’s take on the nearly universally caucasian crowd. “I had to put on sunglasses to look directly at it,” tweeted another commenter. The photo was shared on social media with the hashtag #gopsowhite, a riff on the #oscarssowhite campaign last year that brought attention to the lack of minorities in Hollywood.
It’s unclear whether the interns pictured were all Republicans or whether it was a bipartisan group, and Ryan’s office did not return e-mails seeking clarification. The Daily Mail said the event — a speech titled “Interns Today, Leaders Tomorrow” — was sponsored by the House Republican Conference, and was mostly (though not exclusively) attended by interns working for Republican offices on Capitol Hill (a spokesperson for the conference did not immediately respond).
The picture only highlighted what’s obvious, though not measured, on Capitol Hill — that there’s a dearth of minority staffers. Each office — those of all 535 members of Congress as well as assorted committees and offices — hires its own staff, so there’s no centralized tracking of hires. One of the only studies to look at minority hiring in the Capitol found that only 7.1 percent of top Senate staffers were nonwhite, though minorities represent 36 percent of the population.
It’s easy to mock interns for their earnest naivete, their inability to stand to the right on Metro escalators, or their inappropriate office attire, but they make up the pool of people often hired for junior jobs on the Hill — those who eventually move up the ranks to powerful jobs. After all, Ryan himself was an intern for his home-state senator.
“Interns really are the next generation of leaders,” says Shrita Hernandez, vice president for communications for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which places interns in the Hill offices of CBC members. This summer, they’re sponsoring 46 interns.
Though the lack of diversity among the coffee-fetching class on Capitol Hill has long been discussed, the Ryan photo and the social-media outrage it sparked elevated the issue — just as racial divisions seem starker than ever.
“It really shows how much further we have to achieve to make sure our government reflects the diversity of our nation,” says James Jones, the researcher who conducted the study of Senate staffers for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Having a black or a woman president is one thing, he says, but lawmakers and their staffs play a big role, too. “These are the main actors making policy. And they don’t look like America.”