A picture taken by House Speaker Paul Ryan, of himself and a room full of bright-eyed and fresh Congressional interns is blowing-up on social media. It shows Speaker Ryan and a room full of almost exclusively white faces…selfie style.
Look for yourself.
According to the article below:
There doesn’t seem to be data available on the demographics of Capitol Hill interns, but a December 2015 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that just 7.1% of senior Senate staff were people of color. According to the Pew Research Center, non-white people hold only 17% of elected seats in the 114th Congress — which still ranks as the most diverse Congress ever.
But, let’s be fair, I am brown and I was a Congressional Intern. So, it is possible! I called my Congressional members office, asked if they were accepting interns, sent my resume, then received a call the next day for an interview, and the offer to work for free came two days later. To me, it was worth it though. But, from my experience, the interns are mostly white, followed-by a sprinkling of African Americans, a few Latinos, and very few Native Americans.
From my experience, the issue is not how white it is. The interns were not just white, they were privileged (highly correlated with white). You see, internships are either unpaid, like mine, or poorly paid. You have to pay for rent in a very expensive city, as well as other expenses while working for free. You have to dress correctly and, if you want to be effective, you have to be able to hang with the other interns to socialize (read: Network…very few people are there to make friends!). You have a super difficult time being a congressional intern if you come from humble means. My Dad actually took on extra jobs to support me when I was an intern and I took side jobs. I still could not keep up with the wardrobe, the happy-hours/brunches (where much of the political networking and bonding occurred amongst interns and certain staff), and the random assignments often made it difficult to perform some of my side-jobs. I was not able to take advantage of many of the networking opportunities and rent in DC, was a KILLER. But, I tried, met great people, and, amongst some of the congressional sessions known for accomplishing the least in history, I learned a lot.
So, most interns come from rather comfortable circumstances, highly skewed toward rich, white, and resume oriented. Some interns are service oriented, and they tend to rock in my book. But, this wouldn’t be DC if people weren’t trying to make House of Cards look like a documentary!
My point? My point is that the Congressional Intern System, like Congress itself, is set-up to reward those who have already been rewarded. They come from the right families and the right universities. They wear the right clothes and say all of the right things (when being watched!). Most have high, all-be-they conventional and predictable, aspirations. They are also a hard-partying lot. It was really frustrating to attend briefings, on topics that my Congressional member let me attend because I was passionate about it, and sit next to other interns, hearing them talk about how much money they spent from the weekend, which bars they went to, all while I am trying to pay attention to what matters. I chose to be an intern, left a paying job (not the best paying), all because it was the experience I had dreamed about and needed.
Since they come from similar backgrounds, structures, social class, etc., they more easily fall into social cliques, with similar values, motivations, vocabularies, etc. If you are different and don’t figure out their systems, codes, and rules, it can be a bumpy ride. Think high school but more dismissive.
If we count social-class as an indicator of diversity, and we should, privilege trumps white when it comes to Congressional interns. And, the lack of opportunity that results from being denied access ripples throughout the system. The “white,” I mean the “right” people give each other a hand up while others have to fight, sometimes insurmountable odds, for the same opportunities. Even if less privileged people get the opportunity, they may not be able to afford to take advantage of it, or they are excluded due to class and cultural norms.
Congressional Interns provide valuable services to our country and skilled people from all walks of life should be able to both contribute and to benefit from the lessons, connection, and experiences that are part of the experience. The current system is predominantly exclusionary. It is not based on social class, per se. But, it is shaped by it. Spots are competitive. Rather than select candidates based upon a particular skill set, it is easier to select based upon the right university, the right connections, etc. Once selected, the intern must be able to support themselves in an expensive and highly competitive context. That is a tall order for many families.
To be fair, there are a variety of programs to help the person who qualifies for them. Native Americans for example, can apply for:
–The INSPIRE Initiative: INSPIRE Pre-College Summer Program
–Internships for the White House Initiative for American Indian and Alaska Native Education: Department of Education
These programs offer college credit, fellowships, stipends, (some) room and board, internships on the Hill;, organizations; or within other Federal agencies. The Udall Foundation, which was established by Congress in 1992, provides internships, scholarships, and fellowships to American Indian and Alaska Natives who seek to work in tribal policy, health care, and environmental issues. Aside from Udall, these programs do not originate from congressional offices, where most interns are selected and work, and are not exclusively focused on Congressional Internships.
If interns are providing an important service, maybe they should be compensated. To be honest, I haven’t thought through the idea of a needs-based stipend. I wonder if it would be stigmatizing in this group of hyper-competitive overachievers. If they look at you sideways for carrying the wrong handbag, imagine what they would do if they found out you were being subsidized! If we view this through a trickle-down model, the argument that all should be compensated would result in fewer slots. I am not against that if the result is fewer slots for the usual connected suspects, but more slots for a more economically diverse and representative group.
In conclusion, I am not so offended by the whiteness of Speaker Ryan’s “selfie.” I am more offended by the inferred equivalence between privileged and qualified. If we want to make it really fair, let’s open up this wonderful experience, and the potential career impact of it, to qualified candidates from all walks of life…and all incomes. The picture will be very different if we do.