The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

70 percent of white men in the U.S. are represented by a white man in the House

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks on Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, during the signing ceremony for the 21st Century Cures Act. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
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It's a bit of a sardonic joke to refer to the new Congress, America's 115th, as its most diverse in history. That's technically true, with more women and people of color on Capitol Hill than in any year past. But it's sort of like saying that the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers were the most diverse baseball team to that point in major league history, given that they'd just signed Jackie Robinson.

Congress today isn't quite as monolithically white as was professional baseball in the 1940s, but it's far more white than the majors are now. (On gender, of course, Congress is more diverse.) Both the House and the Senate have slowly -- and relatively steadily -- seen more nonwhite and women members as each Congress has been voted into office.

There's an interesting split in how that diversification has happened, though. The House introduced more racial and ethnic diversity faster than the Senate, while the Senate saw more women join its ranks.

Numbers compiled by Daily Kos pin the percentage of the House that is nonwhite at 22 percent and the same figure in the Senate at 9 percent. Women make up about a fifth of each body -- 19 percent of the House and 21 percent of the Senate.

One common response to assessments of the diversity of Congress focus on the overall composition of the United States. If 22 percent of the House is nonwhite, that means that 78 percent of the body is white. The Census Bureau indicates that 78 percent of the country is white, suggesting some parity. But here we have to disentangle our terms from the Census Bureau's. The Bureau differentiates being Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race, meaning that the number of whites includes a number of white Hispanics. The percent of America that is non-Hispanic and white is only 62 percent, according to the most recent Census numbers -- far lower than the number in the House.

There's another way to look at this. To what extent, we might ask, are Americans represented by members of the House who reflect their race, ethnicity and gender? And there, the numbers are far more stark. Totaling the populations of each Congressional District on those lines and comparing them to the ethnicity or race and gender of members of the House, the pattern is clear. Most whites, men and white men are represented by whites, men and white men in Congress. Only a minority of every other group is represented by members of that same group.

So 88 percent of white Americans are represented by someone white in the House, versus 37 percent of black Americans and 26 percent of Hispanics. (For these calculations, we looked at non-Hispanic white and black population counts.) Eighty-one percent of men are represented by a man -- which makes sense, given that only 19 percent of the members of the House are women. But a remarkable 70 percent of white American men live in a congressional district which is also represented by a white man.

That's what "majority" means, of course. If most people in a congressional district are white and they elect a white person to the House, all of the nonwhite people in that area will lack representation by someone who looks like them. It's not surprising, in that sense, that most members of a racial minority live in a district represented by the racial majority. But that falls apart as an explanation when considering gender. More than half of the country are women, but more than four-fifths of the House are men. It's clearly not all about majority populations.

But again, it's safe to assume that the number of nonwhite people who are represented in Congress by a member of their own racial or ethnic group is at a high. It's probably also safe to assume that the number of nonwhite Americans represented by a nonwhite person of any race or ethnicity is also near a high (39 percent of nonwhite Americans fall into that category).

Just as the number of African-Americans who were playing in the majors in 1947 hit a new peak.