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As Washington welcomes the nation's most ethnically varied Congress ever, WL reflects on the progress of diversity over the past 20 years

When the first United States Congress convened in 1789, all members possessed two characteristics: they were male and they were Caucasian. It wasn't until 1870 - nearly 80 years later - that the first African American congressman, Joseph Rainey (R-SC), was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. It took 172 years for the first woman, Jeannette Rankin (R-MT), to be elected. Fast forward to the 110th Congress, which includes 127 "ethnic" members, and the change seems profound. Still, the question of whether or not this total is sufficient is - like every thing else in the House and Senate - open to debate.

One fact is irrefutable, however; the 110th Congress, which convened January 4, 2007, is the most diverse Congress America has elected. The diversity of membership ranges, from Asian and Latin Americans to 43 African Americans. Religious associations have also grown; Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Henry "Hank" Johnson Jr. (D-GA) are the first Buddhists to be elected, Keith Ellison (D-MN) is the first Muslim and the number of Jewish members has reached 53.

To highlight these advancements, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), a national non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of ethnic unity and acceptance, held a reception in February to welcome new "ethnic" members along with stalwart trailblazers such as Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX).

"My hope is that the new ethnic members of Congress will carry forth the dreams and hopes of a new America - one of understanding, affection, appreciation, respect and dignity," commented Rep. Jackson Lee. Rep. Rangel followed the fervent Dem from Texas, getting applause when he stated, with a hint of irony, that he "likes to think of [our nation's forefathers], wherever they are, looking down at the Capitol, seeing Sheila Jackson Lee on the judiciary committee and knowing all of their work is in the hands of John Conyers."

FFEU President Rabbi Marc Schneier created the organization in 1989 to bridge gaps and strengthen relationships between Black, Latino, Christian, Muslim and Jewish relations as well as to advocate for human and civil rights. Russell Simmons, chairman of the foundation since 2002, is another key FFEU player. Simmons is a leading figure in the hip-hop world and has helped the advancement of African American culture in the United States.

"Be it Muslim, Christian, Jewish, African American, Asian, Latino, we simply cannot fight our battles alone," Rabbi Schneier said. "Within 25 years, the United States Congress should be one-quarter ethnic minority. I think it will make the country even more authentic in terms of our commitment to others - we're going to have to learn to transcend our ethic, religious and ideological differences."

 

 
Changing Ethnic Demographics in Congress 1987-2007
 
 
1987: The 100th U.S. Congress
 
HOUSE MEMBERS
GROUP
SENATE MEMBERS
23
African American
0
3
Asian Pacific
2
14
Hispanic
0
28
Jewish
7
     
Ethnic Committee Chairs: 0
 
Ethnic Subcommittee Chairs: 0
Leadership Positions: 0
 
Total Ethnic Member: 77
     
 
2007: The 110th U.S. Congress
 
HOUSE MEMBERS
GROUP
SENATE MEMBERS
43
African American
1
7
Asian Pacific
2
29
Hispanic
2
30
Jewish
13
     
Ethnic Committee Chairs: 10
 
Ethnic Subcommittee Chairs: 9
Leadership Positions: Majority Whip
 
Total Ethnic Member: 127
(House leadership): Rep. James Clayton
   
     
Statistics provided by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding

 

 

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Rabbi Schneier and Rabbi Israel Singer FedEx's Gina Adams with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Rabbi Schneier and Rabbi Israel Singer FedEx's Gina Adams with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX)

 

Tonio Burgos and Rep. Charles Rangel
Tonio Burgos and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY)



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