The Structure of the Senate Works Against Racial Equality

March 18, 2019

Why This Matters is a series from Roosevelt staff connecting our individual work—from papers to reports and everything in between—to our broader vision of creating a better, more equitable economic and political system. This series will give readers the top takeaways from our latest writing and thinking, with a focus on why they matter as we redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.

We all need transformative solutions for our broken political system, but especially those most disadvantaged by its failings: Americans of color. In a new paper, Roosevelt Fellow Todd Tucker explores five ways to reform the Senate—a body structured by biased rules of representation that prioritize sparsely populated states with mostly white populations, exclude nearly 5 million, mostly non-white citizens, and work in favor of the few. Tucker’s key proposal—a constitutional amendment to add eight Senate seats for DC, overseas territories, and Native American tribes—would create full representation in the US Senate (see p. 30). Ultimately, he shows that racial inequities don’t only exist in the abstract, but that they are also codified into the very underpinnings of our most hallowed institutions.

There are many consequences of inequitable representation, as Tucker explores, but the ramifications for racial equality—in the past, present, and especially the future—are exceedingly alarming. By 2050, most Americans will be people of color. Until 2090, however, Black and brown Americans will remain the minority in most states—due to geographic diffusion by race. This means that for 40 years, any issue that requires a majority vote in the Senate can be blocked by senators who represent a white minority over those who represent the will of the non-white majority. Senatorial inequality hijacks political power from Americans of color for generations, giving substantial leverage to white Americans in national politics and policymaking—white Americans who already have many intrinsic advantages in our society.

In a 2017 interview with Roosevelt Fellow Darrick Hamilton, journalist Narender Strong said:

“If we go back in history, as an example even within the Constitution, the construction of most policies are structured to benefit … white identity. How do we apply policy or reconstruct policies differently that have been and continue to be structured to benefit an inherent whiteness?”

White privilege is a complex problem, but the fact that it is structurally built into the very halls of Congress is a crisis—one that is depriving us of an inclusive democracy and economy. Bold solutions to fix the Senate, including granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico, dividing California into seven states, and extending representation to US territories, can rectify this problem and rebalance political power in America. Ultimately, in his call for full representation, Tucker seeks to hold the US to its own foundational ideals: liberty and justice for all.