Muller: Cory Booker’s win highlights lack of diversity in U.S. Senate

Muller: Cory Bookers win highlights lack of diversity in U.S. Senate

Yoni Muller, Opinion Editor

Late Wednesday night, Democrats rejoiced (to the surprise of no one) when Newark Mayor Cory Booker received a promotion by being elected to the U.S. Senate. Booker won the special election held to fill the seat held by the late senator Frank Lautenberg. Booker’s election accomplishes a lot of things, including shifting the balance of power more in favor of Democrats and planting the seeds for a potential presidential campaign in 2020, if not 2016. Yet nobody seems to be talking about one of the most important things it does.

Many may not know this fact, but Booker is the first black person elected to the Senate in nearly a decade. On the one hand, this might bode well for him — the last guy did pretty well for himself. However, it should at least raise a few eyebrows that in a group that held nearly 200 elections in the past decade, only 1 percent of the winners were black.

The surprising truth is that the Senate has a diversity problem. Although the House continues to fulfill its promise of representing all people, the Senate by comparison looks more and more like a New England yacht club. As of August of this year, the Senate showed some surprisingly homogenous characteristics. Of the 100 members, one is black (but not elected; he was appointed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley), four are Hispanic, one is Asian and the rest are white. I should also mention that men outnumber women four to one.

It’s not that the Senate has no diversity. Eleven of its members are Jewish, and a shocking seven are Mormon. Yet there is only one Buddhist, and no Muslims or Hindus currently serve. This is further complicated by the fact that in just about every possible metric, the U.S. House is substantially more diverse than its counterpart in the Capitol. The House literally has double the number of Native Americans than the Senate has blacks – that’s unbelievable.

This is not problematic because of such liberal calls to arms as “white privilege” or “the patriarchy” (which Caryn Lenhoff did a wonderful job labeling as just the worst). The problem is that people develop world views and ideologies in large part from experiences. Of course, those same experiences are shaped, in equally large part, by characteristics such as religion, gender and yes, race. When a group of 100 people make decisions that affect 300 million of us, it seems a bit peculiar that 94 of them should be white, because they only see the world in the same way as a small fraction of the nation.

As a Jew, I always get frustrated when I see elected officials try to advance controversial policies with the use of religion (particularly one that is often not mine). I can only imagine the frustration Hispanics feel when they’re not adequately represented in immigration discussions or women who feel left out in debating the particulars of birth control under Obamacare.

Moreover, a diverse group of individuals affords each member the opportunity to hear new ideas and learn new things. This is one of the main arguments for affirmative action in our schools, yet our lawmakers have no similar experience.

The problem isn’t that only white, Protestant men are qualified to be senators. I believe the problem is due to a multitude of factors – party support, historical precedence and societal pressures — where minorities are given overt and covert messages that they are not Senate material. They are led, intentionally and unintentionally, to believe that they would never get elected,  so many just choose not to run. Nearly every election I’ve seen with a minority candidate was one where both candidates were seen as real contenders — as it should be — but there have been so few recently that minorities have no chance of carving out a notable chunk of seats.

And so, when Booker is sworn in as early as next week, let’s hope he inspires others to run. The introduction of new people and new faces to the Senate starts now, and it’s not a random phenomenon.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Sen. Tim Scott’s appointer. The Daily regrets the error.

Yoni Muller is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].