The Broken Barriers of 2022

If representation matters, and research suggests that it does, then it is worth taking a look back at 2022 and noting the addition of more Americans of color in majority white spaces. Every time that Black, Latino, AAPI or Native people are represented in a place or position that had previously been occupied only by white individuals, a barrier is broken. A space is created. A new voice and perspective is heard.  Participation, inclusion, and equity in all facets of American life are advanced. In a piece that I wrote last April for this blog, I discussed the importance of BIPOC representation in our schools (What Joe Biden and Ronald Reagan Can Teach Newtown About Hiring Teachers | Newtown Allies For Change). Today I’m taking a wider look and focusing on BIPOC Americans who broke important barriers last year.

Let’s start with Washington, DC, where the country’s lawmakers are more racially diverse than ever before in our nation’s history. 

A record-setting 25% of the 534 voting members of the 118th Congress identify as BIPOC, including members who are Black, Hispanic, Asian American/Pacific Islander and Indigenous. This increase in representation gets us one step closer to having a truly representative government.

And check out all of these firsts!

  • The first Black person elected to a full term of Congress as a US Senator representing the state of Georgia. 
  • The first Black person to lead a political party in Congress.
  • The first Black woman elected to Congress from the state of Pennsylvania.

Raphael Warnock, Hakeem Jeffries, and Summer Lee are just three of the many BIPOC Americans who made history in 2022. 

  • Rep. Mary Peltola is the first indigenous Alaskan to be elected to Congress. 
  • Rep. Robert Garcia, from California, is the first LGBTQ immigrant elected to Congress.
  • The first Latina to be elected to the Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), was re-elected in 2022 for a second term.
  • Maxwell Frost (FL), age 25, is the first member of the House of Representative who is part of Generation Z (Americans born in the late 1990s and early 2000s). He became a gun violence prevention activist ten years ago at the age of 15, inspired to do so by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While his age contributes to the diversity in Congress, so does his ethnicity: His birth mother was Puerto Rican of Lebanese descent, his dad Haitian, his adoptive mother Cuban American and his dad a Midwestern white man from Kansas.

The aforementioned are all Democrats. In fact 80% of non-white lawmakers are. But Republicans of color are making strides in representing their communities in Washington as well.  

Republicans Wesley Hunt (TX) and John James (MI) have joined two other Black members from their party in the House. With Senator Tim Scott (SC), that makes a total of five Black Republicans in Congress. It may not seem like many, but the last time that many Black Republicans were serving in Congress was in 1877. 

2022 was a big year for Latinos in Congress as well. Fourteen new Hispanic members are new colleagues of the 34 who were already serving, resulting in an unprecedented 11%  Latino representation in Congress. 

The 118th Congress also includes record numbers of Asian American/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (21) and LGBTQ Americans (13). Women now make up 28% of the House and 25% of the Senate–the highest ever. 

There are BIPOC public servants making news outside of Congress too. Focusing on Washington for a minute more, we’ve got Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson who was nominated and seated as the first Black Woman to serve on the US Supreme Court. For our country to have a Black woman’s perspective, experience, and voice on the nation’s highest court feels especially monumental to me. (And may I say…it’s about time!)

On the state level, US Army veteran Wes Moore (D) was elected as the first Black governor of the state of Maryland. He is only the third Black man to be elected as governor in the country, the first being in 1990 (L. Douglas Wilder, VA) and the second in 2007 (Deval Patrick, MA). Gov. Moore’s Lieutenant Governor is Aruna Miller, the first immigrant and first Asian American elected to State government in Maryland. She is also the first South Asian American to become Lt. Governor nationwide. 

There has never been a Black female governor of any state. Yet.

2022 saw the first Black woman, Karen Bass, elected as mayor of Los Angeles. Only one other Black person before her held the same office, Thomas Bradley. Governor Bradley was not only the first Black mayor of LA, but he held his seat for the longest, from 1973-1993..

Let’s briefly turn to Hollywood, where the Oscar goes to….Ariana DeBose! DeBose was recognized as the best supporting actress in her role as Anita in West Side Story. She is only the second Latina woman to win an Oscar for acting; Rita Moreno who played the same character, won the prestigious award in 1962. DeBose is the first openly queer person of color to win.

Perhaps no individual of color made more of a splash in 2022 than “Black Ariel”–or, as I like to call her, “Ariel”. Last summer Disney announced that Halle Bailey had been cast as the beloved animated character in the latest version of The Little Mermaid, which is due to be released in May of 2023. Black families and their allies were thrilled (I admit to both teary eyes and goosebumps as I watched the videos of little Black and Brown girls jumping up and down with excitement–Videos of young Black girls reacting to ‘Little Mermaid’ trailer go viral – Bing video). Unfortunately (and predictably), it didn’t take long for the hashtag #NotMyAriel to begin trending on social media as racist Americans let it be known that their mermaid would always be white. 

All this representation sounds promising, right? So many firsts! Yet I find myself feeling somewhat disgusted too. Yes, progress was made in 2022. But full representation has not been achieved. To give just one example, while the Congress is 75% white, according to the Census the population is only 59% white. And even more discouraging, that gap in representation has held steady for at least 40 years. But there’s some good news buried in those numbers as well. Black representation in Congress (13%) is currently proportional to the population. The other racial and ethnic groups, however, continue to be underrepresented in their government.

So, should we feel discouraged or hopeful? I’ll leave you with the words of Governor Wes Moore from his inauguration speech and let you decide:

“This journey has never been about ‘making history.’ It is about marching forward. Today is not an indictment of the past; it’s a celebration of our future. And today is our opportunity to begin a future so bright, it is blinding. But only if we are intentional, inclusive, and disciplined in confronting challenges, making hard choices, and seizing the opportunity in front of us.”

As 2022 was winding down, I happened to catch a segment on MSNBC which highlighted BIPOC Americans who broke some important barriers in 2022. Credit goes to journalist Trymaine Lee and his team for the above list. The statistics come from the Pew Research Center and other online sources.