June 28, 2016

Blacks have made gains in U.S. political leadership, but gaps remain

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., flanked from left by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Senate Judiciary ranking member Pat Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks during a news conference on criminal justice reform legislation in October 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., speaks during a news conference on criminal justice reform legislation in October 2015. Booker and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., at far right, are the first two black U.S. senators to serve simultaneously. From left are Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and ranking member Pat Leahy, D-Vt.; and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Barack Obama’s election to the highest political office in the land in 2008 was a proud moment for many Americans. It represented another advance in the slow but steady progress blacks have made in recent decades in gaining a greater foothold in political leadership, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Cabinets of recent presidents. But they have lagged in the Senate and in governorships.

Many blacks view political representation as a potential catalyst for increased racial equality, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Roughly four-in-ten black adults (38%) say that working to get more black people elected to office would be a very effective tactic for groups striving to help blacks achieve equality. Whites are less likely to view this as an effective way to bring about increased racial equality (24% say it would be very effective).

Data from the past 50 years reveal the upward yet uneven trajectory of black political leadership in America. In 1965, there were no blacks in the U.S. Senate, nor were there any black governors. And only six members of the House of Representatives were black. By 2015, there was greater representation in some areas (44 House members were black) but little change in others (there were two black senators and one black governor). The share of blacks who have served in a presidential Cabinet, however, has been generally high – even above parity with the population – under administrations in the past two decades.

The first black U.S. senator, Hiram R. Revels, a Republican from Mississippi, was chosen by his state’s Legislature to fill an empty seat. He served for a year, from 1870 to 1871. Since then, eight black Americans have served in the Senate, including Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts (1967-79), Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois (1993-99), and Obama. But until 2013, no two black senators had been in office at the same time. That year, Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) took office, making it the first time more than one black senator has served.

Black U.S. House members, 1965-2015

Date Black U.S. representatives
1965 6
1967 6
1969 10
1971 12
1973 15
1975 16
1977 16
1979 16
1981 18
1983 21
1985 20
1987 22
1989 24
1991 27
1993 39
1995 41
1997 39
1999 37
2001 37
2003 38
2005 40
2007 44
2009 39
2011 43
2013 42
2015 44

Note: Shows the total number of black representatives serving in the Congress beginning in the given year. These representatives did not necessarily serve simultaneously or for the entire Congress. The data do not include nonvoting delegates or commissioners.

Source: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Pew Research Center

The current 114th Congress includes 44 black representatives, a large increase since 1965 but little changed since 2007. Of these, 42 are Democrats and two are Republicans. Two nonvoting delegates, representing the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are black. Only six representatives were black in 1965, and all were Democrats. The longest-serving black member of Congress is John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan). He became a member of the House in 1965, and remains in office today.

Black U.S. Cabinet members

Administration Cabinet positions held by blacks
Johnson 8%
Nixon, term 1 0%
Nixon, term 2 0%
Ford 8%
Carter 7%
Reagan, term 1 7%
Reagan, term 2 7%
G.H.W. Bush 7%
Clinton, term 1 27%
Clinton, term 2 20%
G.W. Bush, term 1 19%
G.W. Bush, term 2 13%
Obama, term 1 6%
Obama, term 2 19%

Note: Percentages are based on the maximum number of black Cabinet members serving concurrently in a given administration out of the total number of Cabinet members in that administration.

Source: Inside Gov.

Pew Research Center

Cabinet posts, which are appointive, are unique among the leadership positions examined because the share of blacks in the Cabinet has exceeded the share of blacks (now 12%) in the U.S. population. The highest level of representation occurred during Bill Clinton’s first term, when four out of 15 Cabinet appointees were black.

The number of blacks serving in Cabinet positions has stayed consistently above 12% ever since, except for during Obama’s first term, when only one Cabinet member was black. The share of the Cabinet that is black has been higher on average during Democratic administrations (14%) than in Republican administrations (8%), but this may reflect the fact that Democratic presidents have been more common since the 1990s and Republican presidents were more common prior to that.

There are no black governors in office today, and there have been only four in U.S. history. Pinckney Pinchback served as a governor of Louisiana for 35 days in the 1870s, following Henry Clay Warmoth’s impeachment. Virginia, Massachusetts and New York each had a black governor during the 1990s and 2000s – Douglas Wilder, Deval Patrick and David Paterson, respectively. The latter two were the first to serve simultaneously, from 2008 to 2010.

Topics: Congress, African Americans, State and Local Government, U.S. Political Figures

  1. Photo of Anna Brown

    is a research analyst focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.

  2. is Assistant Digital Producer.