January 22, 2021
Black Americans have made gains in U.S. political leadership, but gaps remain
Twelve years after Barack Obama made history as the first Black U.S. president, a Black woman was sworn in as vice president of the United States following the election of Joe Biden. Kamala Harris, who is of mixed Jamaican and Indian heritage, is the first Black American, first person of Asian descent and first woman to hold the second-highest office in the country. Harris’ election represented another advance in the slow but steady progress Black Americans 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 Black Americans view political representation as a potential catalyst for increased racial equality, according to a June 2020 Pew Research Center survey. Four-in-ten Black adults said that working to get more Black people elected to office would be a very effective tactic for groups striving to help Black Americans achieve equality. White adults were less likely to view this as an effective way to bring about increased racial equality (23% said it would be very effective).
Data from the past several decades reveals the upward yet uneven trajectory of Black political leadership in America. In 1965, there were no Black U.S. senators or governors, and only five members of the House of Representatives were Black. As of 2021, there is greater representation in some areas – 57 House members in the new Congress are Black (not including nonvoting delegates and commissioners), putting the share of Black House members (13%) about on par with the share of the overall U.S. population that is Black. But in other areas, there has been little change: There are three Black senators – the same number as in 2019 – and no Black governors.
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