Closing doors: The threat to Latin@ representation in government and education

As the 2024 presidential race heats up, so do the dinner table arguments and heated debates about matters close to our hearts and minds. As battling opinions and passionate speeches take over our screens and conversations, we ponder how these controversial topics impact the people we care about. One such critical issue is the representation of Latin@ and underserved communities in government and universities.  

Representation matters. People trust and empower representatives who understand them to make laws and decisions on their behalf. For Latin@ survivors of gender-based violence to be heard, to voice our grievances, and self-advocate for policies that reflect our needs, we need representatives who we trust to listen to us. 

People of color trust their government more and are more likely to contact their representatives when they share the same race/ethnicity. Young women are more interested in politics when they see other women running for office. To build this trust and communication between congresspeople and constituents, representatives must look like the constituents they serve.

When only 3.6% of all voting members of Congress identify as Latina, while Latinas make up 9.3% of the total U.S. population, it’s clear that there’s a gap in representation. The lack of trust created by this disproportion became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when high levels of distrust in government fueled the spread of virus misinformation in Latin@ communities. 

To help bridge this gap, the U.S. House created an Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) in March 2020. The ODI aims to make Congress more reflective of the population, connecting qualified candidates to congressional careers, and spreading awareness of the importance of representation. Since its creation, the ODI has helped approximately 2,678 jobseekers in total, 730 of whom were looking to land congressional careers. 

While we applaud these successes, the ODI’s work of “putting the people in the people’s house” is far from over. As of 2022, while Latin@s made up 18.4% of the U.S. population, only 5.8% of top staff in the House identified as Latin@. Similarly, people of color made up only 18% of senior staff in the House of Representatives, while comprising 41% of the U.S. population in 2023. 

Unfortunately, despite its crucial role and ongoing need, the ODI faced challenges due to the politicization of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Critics argued that DEI programs were exclusionary, leading to tensions and debates within Congress. As a result, amidst tense negotiations to fund the government and avoid a partial shutdown, the House dissolved the ODI and replaced it with the Office of Talent Management effective March 22, 2024.

Regrettably, colleges and universities are facing similar challenges. States like Florida, Texas, and Utah have approved bans on DEI efforts in higher education and public offices, cutting programs aimed at increasing access to education for Latin@s and other underserved communities. As of April 10, DEI programs have been outlawed to some extent in ten states

Considering that nearly all members of the 118th Congress have a bachelor’s degree, with most having a graduate degree, as well, higher education is crucial in shaping future leaders. Without DEI initiatives, future champions for Latin@ survivors may not be able to afford college, as colleges aren’t allowed to fund diversity and equity funds to provide scholarships. 

The removal of DEI efforts in government and education puts the Latin@ community’s progress toward proportional representation at risk. This shift not only stifles the voices of survivors of gender-based violence but also limits opportunities for emerging Latin@ leaders. Embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion is crucial for a more inclusive society.