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Racial gap persists among Capitol Hill interns

‘The whole system is geared towards minimizing opportunities,’ says poli sci head at Howard University

Ravi Perry, chair of Howard University’s political science department, started on his career path with an unpaid internship in his congresswoman’s D.C. office.
Ravi Perry, chair of Howard University’s political science department, started on his career path with an unpaid internship in his congresswoman’s D.C. office. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Ravi Perry wasn’t your ordinary college freshman. At a time when most students are still trying to figure out their major, Perry had figured out the first step in his career — a summer internship in his congresswoman’s D.C. office. It set him down the path to where he is today: chair of Howard University’s political science department.

But before he could take that first step, he had to figure out how to afford it. D.C. was cheaper 20 years ago, but it still wasn’t cheap, and the internship, like almost all internships back then, didn’t pay. Perry managed to find a part-time job at American University, but he still needed to find an affordable place to live. And if it weren’t for Señora Szymanski, he might not have made it.

“I had to get my former high school Spanish teacher’s brother to give me an apartment to live in,” he said.

Szymanski’s brother had an apartment in Alexandria and planned to be away the entire summer, so on little more than his sister’s vouching, he let Perry, still a teenager, stay there rent-free.

It shouldn’t take such an unlikely confluence of factors — getting hired, finding a second job, getting a free place to stay — for Black kids to take an internship, Perry said. But the barriers remain.

When Congress started paying its interns a few years ago, the expectation was that it would help level the playing field for students of color, who tend to come from less money than their white peers. 

A recent study from Pay Our Interns found, however, that the students getting paid internships were still overwhelmingly white and disproportionately more likely to attend private universities — just half went to public schools, compared with 75 percent of all U.S. undergraduates.

D.C.-area schools dominate

The study compiled lists of the top schools attended by 2019 congressional summer interns, revealing some further clues. Unsurprisingly, D.C.-area schools outperformed institutions flung farther from the capital, claiming the top four spots among private universities.

For one, there are logistical advantages: Students often already have housing, and job fairs and interviews are usually just a Metro ride away. It’s also a matter of self-selection. Many students decide to study in the nation’s capital because they dream of one day working in government. 

American University had 145 interns, the most of any college.

“American University students are often very motivated by public service and interning on Capitol Hill is seen as a way to engage in service,” a university spokesman wrote in an email. “In addition, AU is consistently ranked among the most politically active student bodies in the country.”

Georgetown University followed in second with 92 interns, while third-place George Washington University had 77 and Howard ranked fourth with 34. Catholic University of America also finished in the top 10, ranking seventh with 25 interns.

But what explains the differences between the schools? American is no better located than Howard for internships on Capitol Hill — if anything, it’s worse. 

American is a bit larger — more than 14,000 undergrad and graduate students, compared with Howard’s just under 10,000 — but not significantly enough to explain the difference. And according to U.S. News and World Report’s rankings, the two are nearly tied: American is ranked No. 79 among national universities, and Howard is ranked 80th.

Howard should even have a slight edge since its political science department has a dedicated director of internships. But students from the historically Black university still don’t have the same kind of foothold on Capitol Hill.

Perry thinks it has everything to do with who’s already there. Members of Congress are less racially diverse than the nation, along with their top staffers (77 percent of lawmakers are white). When the House and Senate set aside money to start paying interns, the culture didn’t change overnight — and the usual pathways to get there didn’t either.

Feeder programs       

Some universities have established feeder programs and tout their proactive approach. Texas A&M pointed to two programs that helped it place 41 interns: the “phenomenal Public Policy Internship Program, as well as Agricultural and Natural Resources Policy Internship Program, which is how interns from across campus are selected and placed in congressional offices each year,” said Kelly Brown, a Texas A&M spokesperson.  

The University of Michigan, which ranked second among public universities behind the University of California system, did not respond to a request for comment. But for more than 50 years, Wolverines have come to Washington through the school’s Public Service Intern Program.

George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government has a faculty adviser who helps students land internships, but she said most of the credit goes to GMU’s students and alumni network.

“We have a solid reputation with several repeat placements. Many offices contact me directly with internship announcements,” said Ann Ludwick, assistant dean for undergraduate academic affairs at GMU’s Schar School. “Alums also keep in touch with opportunities. Other ways students get internships on the Hill is through personal networks, career services [and GMU’s online jobs board].”

Networks are self-sustaining,  and it’s perfectly natural for an alumnus of a particular school to favor candidates from that school. They already have something in common and can talk about the upcoming basketball season, a professor they both loved (or hated) and whether the campus bar still does sink or swim specials on Thursdays.

The problem, says Perry, is when those self-perpetuating systems repeatedly pump out racially disparate results. A structure that largely excluded Blacks because of active racism will continue to do so without any specific animus. This, roughly, is what he and other scholars mean by “systemic racism.”

“The whole system is geared towards minimizing opportunities,” Perry explained. “Unless the system itself chooses to create a different structure and a different set of incentives, then that same systemic culture will remain.

‘Meet us where we are’

Perry said to break out of the cycle, Congress has to take some proactive steps. Given budget restraints, historically Black colleges and universities like Howard are already doing all they can, he said.

“They need to meet us where we are. That’s both literal and figurative. Literal means they can come to campus, host job fairs, yada yada yada,” Perry said. “We do that with other federal employment offices [like the Foreign Service], but for some reason that doesn’t exist in Congress.”

While some congressional offices do recruit from HBCUs, the data shows that white members are still mostly hiring white interns — 76 percent of paid interns in 2019, excluding those placed through third-party groups like the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Figuratively, Perry said, Congress can meet Howard by deciding, as an institution, that it wants a staff that reflects the diversity of the nation.

While Congress does act as a whole in some regards, hiring staff is an office-by-office task. Even though the House has created an Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Senate Democrats have their own initiative to help offices diversify, ultimately it’s up to individual members to decide who they hire, and how.

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