New Jersey voters elected Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) on Wednesday to the seat once held by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D). When he is seated, Senator-elect Booker will join Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) as one of only two African Americans in the upper house of Congress. Close to thirteen percent of the country is black, despite the fact that African Americans control just two percent of the seats in the Senate.
Yet, despite their current under-representation, African Americans are actually unusually well-represented in the current Senate as compared to most of American history. Only four black men and women were elected to the United States Senate in all of American history — former Sens. Edward William Brooke (R-MA) and Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) join Booker in this very exclusive group, along with President Barack Obama. Five other African Americans also served in the Senate, including incumbent Sen. Scott, but each of these men were either appointed by governors to fill vacant seats or were selected by state legislatures prior to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, which called for direct elections of senators. Additionally, former Louisiana Gov. P. B. S. Pinchback, a Republican, was selected by his state legislature to be a senator but denied his seat by Democrats in Congress.
Last June, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “[o]ur country has changed” from the one riddled with racial apartheid 50 years ago, and he cited this progress as a reason to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. America has changed, and there can be no doubt that the nation we live in today is better than the one our grandparents lived in when the Voting Rights Act became law.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that only four African Americans have been elected to the Senate in America’s entire history. Perhaps America hasn’t made as much progress as John Roberts thinks.