Rethinking how the U.S Congress Works: The case of Black legislative employees

Dr. James Jones

In this paper, I develop a sociological theory about how the U.S. Congress works as a racialized governing institution and workplace from the perspectives of Black workers employed there. Black workers’ status as outsiders within an elite political institution provide a unique standpoint from which to examine the intersections of racism, power, and citizenship in the U.S. federal legislature. Theorizing from this marginalized standpoint challenges existing theories about what Congress is, what it does, and who it serves. This approach provides at least three different lenses for analyzing how Congress works. As opposed to a democratic governing institution, this standpoint identifies Congress as an illiberal lawmaking body that instrumental in creating and upholding the racial order. Secondly, its workplace is an inequality regime that trains, socializes, and credentials a white power elite. Analyzing the career of Black legislative workers, I show how congressional work is racially stratified, how physical space is segregated, and how identities and interactions are racialized. And finally, while White elites have dominated positions Congress using their numbers to advance white interests an institutionalized Black political class has coalesced there to resist an illiberal policymaking agenda and advance racial minorities political and social rights. In this way, Congress is simultaneously a site of racial domination and a Black capitol, where Black workers have used their status as legislative employees and citizens to challenge inequality. Thus, I identify Congress as a complex social institution and contested space. I define Congress as a multi-dimensional institution, inhabited by different groups that pursue cross-cutting goals and through which resources and opportunities are distributed. These social relations make and remake the contours of Congress as a racialized governing institution.