As in many aspects of African-American politics, the history of the United States Congress can be described as some number of steps backward, followed by some number of step forward, perpetually repeated. Important progresses have been made, only to be complicated by as-yet unresolved failings and inequities. Descriptive, symbolic, and substantive representations of African-Americans have come at different times, with material concerns and rights-based concerns being prioritized at different times, resulting in an uneven and incongruous set of outcomes on the national stage and in the lived experiences of African-Americans. While it cannot be said that African-Americans have been proportionally represented in Congress, it is also true that those in Congress—African-American and otherwise—have produced mixed results in relation to issues important to African-Americans.
Descriptive representation of African-Americans in Congress has had an inconsistent history and has failed in its representativeness. Between 1870 and 1891, there were six African-American people in Congress. In the next decade, there was one, and no African-Americans sat in Congress from that point until 1928. Congress has seen over 11,000 members, but only 139 have been African-American. There have been nine African-American Senators. While African-Americans make up 12% of the United States population, they make up only 2% of the Senate and 10% of the House of Representatives. How this has happened is complicated.
Reapportionment of representatives is automatically determined based on census statistics. It is known that minorities tend to be undercounted in relation to whites, but the Supreme Court has barred adjusting the census in order to properly account for underrepresentation of minorities. Redistricting is complicated by the fact that states draw districts, allowing states with a greater tendency to consider race in various way to adopt policies that disproportionately affect African-Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed redistricting on the basis of race, but problems of racial misrepresentation have persisted. To make matters worse, in Katherine Tate’s Black Faces in the Mirror: African Americans and Their Representatives in the U.S. Congress, she refers to research from Chandler Davidson’s and Bernard Grofman’s Quiet Revolution to show that representation has remained problematic in Congress partly because whites have rarely voted for African-American candidates.
Descriptive representation is important for several reasons. As Tate shows, “Black constituents believe that they are better represented in Congress when their representative is Black.” As such, descriptive representation can have positive effects for psychological and sociological effects for African-Americans. As it happens, the assessment that African-Americans make of their African-American representatives appears to be right. Tate states, “[W]hile U.S. legislators are capable of speaking for a ‘divergent rank’ of social groups, the overwhelming empirical evidence indicates that with respect to Blacks, at least, they normally don’t. Black members in Congress have been the most consistent spokespersons for and champions of Black interests.” But Carol Swain, in Black Faces, Black Interests, provides a counterargument: white members of Congress can sometimes represent African-Americans better than African-American representatives can. To that, Tate draws on Kenny Whitby’s The Color of Representation and David Cannon’s Race, Redistricting, and Representation to show that Swain’s proposition is not the general case. She says, “While the perception of Black legislators is that they are not very successful in winning passage of the bills that they sponsor, [Tate] establish[es] …that the opposite is true.” In this sense, descriptive representation helps to ensure substantive representation. But achieving descriptive and symbolic representations can be difficult.
Committee appointments can best measure African-American power in the House of Representatives, and African-Americans have gained more committee appointments when Democrats have been in control than when Republicans have been in control. However, thanks to concerted efforts by African-Americans and their allies, African-Americans have generally gained more power as time has passed, as can be demonstrated by the fact that 109th Congress saw African-Americans stand on nearly every committee, despite that Republicans controlled the Executive, along with both houses of Congress. Also perhaps counterintuitive, when the Congressional Black Caucus, established in 1969 to represent African-American interests, has grown, African-Americans in Congress have lost power. This may help to support the fact that different forms of representation can, at times, appear to be at odds.
In Mary Frances Bacon’s Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich, she demonstrates part of why the descriptive, symbolic, and substantive can be at odds. Her analysis shows how African-Americans have been, and continue to be, manipulated for political gains. While this can be problematic in descriptive terms, it also has the effect of disconnecting elected officials from their constituencies, resulting in losses to symbolic and substantive representations.
African-Americans in Congress gain politically by passing symbolic legislation, even if the material benefits to African-Americans can seem unclear. Tate states, “[S]ymbolic policies are a cheap way to distribute some nonmaterial public good to constituents,” especially as the “symbolic resolution is exceptionally easy to pass.” These symbolic bills can divert attention and effort away from more substantive bills, but they are not merely hollow gestures. It is important to have African-Americans representing in Congress and passing legislation. It can give something in the way of investment and a reflection of one’s own opportunity to Americans in general and to members of the African-American community, in particular. Also, some of those symbolic bills are important to society, as in making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday and divesting from apartheid South Africa. Having African-American interests represented and creating feeling that someone is fighting for the African-American community is important. Tate points out the necessity of symbolic representation: “[F]or Blacks to be fully represented, their interests must be understood as symbolic as well as substantive.” While symbolic gains can appear to complicate substantive gains, they do not preclude them.
Substantive gains for African-Americans have come from Congress whether or not African-Americans have been members, but those gains have been greater when African-Americans have been included in the membership. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance Act banned slavery in the Northwest Territory, and in 1808, Congress passed legislation to end the slave trade. Congress abolished slavery completely in the District of Columbia in 1862, and passed six Civil Rights bills between 1866 and 1875, including three Civil Rights enforcement acts. By the mid-20th century, African-American membership had begun to grow and has since increased. Between 1957 and 1968, five Civil Rights bills were passed, and another was passed in 1991. 1985 saw the passage of a Civil Rights enforcement act, and the Voting Rights Act was renewed in 2007, despite opposition by some Southern Republicans. Following the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire case from 2007, President Obama passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, making it easier for people to sue on the basis of discrimination in pay. But the Ledbetter case was a complicated one because the legislation was written in order to make up for the Ledbetter loss in Supreme Court. While the successes listed here were significant, Congress has often failed to address the needs of the African-American community.
In 1866, Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, followed Lincoln by vetoing a Freedmen’s Bureau Bill that would have helped African-Americans; Congress failed to override the veto. 1963 saw the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but it remains that African-Americans are generally unemployed at a rate double that of whites. In 1978, the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, which would have helped African-Americans reach full employment, became the more watered-down and symbolic Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. In 2008, John Lewis introduced a bill to reverse Alexander v. Sandoval and restore the right to sue in cases of discrimination, but the bill did not make it out of committee. It remains that substantive gains face significant challenges in the white supremacist culture of the United States.
It may be tempting to say that substantive representation is the most important, and that seems logical enough to say. If one brings to bear policies that advance relevant policies, then this seems like the most tangible kind of possible progress. Some people might argue that this is the only kind of progress that actually matters. However, substantive representation without descriptive and symbolic representations still leaves much to be asked for and can lead to significant problems.
If substantive gains are being made without descriptive and symbolic representations, the potential for low trust and high tension can seem obvious. If people feel that they are not being given fair access to opportunities to be heard and to opportunities to take part in power, they would seem to have legitimate cause for dissatisfaction. Social trust and social cohesion are important for people’s capacities. If people do not feel that society is accepting of them, then they may not set their sights as high as they otherwise would. Also, exclusions can lead to social bifurcations and conflicts, which can be costly in a number of ways.
That said, Fredrick Harris might argue something different. He might be inclined to remind us that, as things stand, there sometimes is a price to descriptive and symbolic representations. Harris might argue that one might only need observe the Obama Presidency to come to understand “the price of the ticket.” That is to say that those things that drive politicians and help them stay in office are complicated by racist cultural realities that make it difficult for politicians to pass substantive legislation for African-Americans. As an example of how descriptive gains can complicate substantive matters, Harris shows, in his 2005 book, Countervailing Forces in African-American Civic Activism, 1973-1994, that African-Americans engage in non-voting civic activism at a decreasing rate as more African-Americans take office. Tate makes similar points about how symbolic representation can make substantive representation more difficult. Perhaps they would both agree, though, that all three types of representation are necessary for achieving full realization of equality and freedom.
In the end, what seems to be clear is that African-American representatives have done a better job of representing African-Americans than have white officials. This is not to say that all African-American representatives have done a better job representing African-Americans than have all white representatives; it could be said that some white officials seem to have done more for African-Americans than have some African-American representatives, at least in some ways. Still, as Tate seems to attest, the best apparent strategy for representing the needs of African-Americans seems to be to ensure representation that is more reflective of the American populace in general, especially those groups that are underrepresented, as doing so could have multiple, even interacting, benefits.