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Esther J. Cepeda: Why so few Hispanics in the government workforce

First Published      Last Updated Aug 13 2016 06:00 pm

CHICAGO • When President Obama leaves office in January, his legacy — in many Hispanics' minds, at least — will largely be defined by his record number of deportations.

Despite his executive actions to keep certain unlawfully present immigrants from being deported, Obama has distinguished himself by sending more than 2.5 million unauthorized immigrants back to their native lands.

Hopefully, history will also remember that Obama has done an admirable job of putting Hispanics into high-visibility positions in both his administration and in other top government posts.

He currently has four Cabinet or Cabinet-level Latino office-holders — Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Education Secretary John King, and Small Business Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet — out of a total of 23 such positions.




Amazingly, at 17 percent, the number of the president's Latino executive department heads accurately reflects the percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. population.

Kenneth Romero-Cruz, executive director of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL), an organization representing Hispanic state legislators, wants to keep it that way. His group has vowed to act as a watchdog on the next president's administration to ensure that Latinos lose no ground.

"Whoever the next president is, we will be requesting at least four Cabinet positions for Hispanics," Romero-Cruz told me. "And that number should be a benchmark, a floor, not a ceiling. We want to at least keep the level of representation we have now."

Romero-Cruz underscored how important it is that top government positions reflect the nation's demographics — so that institutions can be responsive to the needs of particular communities — not simply for the sake of fulfilling a quota. But in the federal workforce as a whole, the picture is much different. By NHCSL's count, Latinos are the most underrepresented minority in the federal workforce.

"Even now, though we are 17.6 percent of the U.S. population, we are just 8.4 of the federal workforce," Romero-Cruz said. "The Office of Personnel Management issued its first diversity and inclusion report in 2002 and Latino underrepresentation was seen as chronic even back then. But if you take the percentage of Latinos in the federal workforce then, in the context of their smaller population in the U.S., and compare it to now, we've seen less than a 2 percent increase in over a decade."

By his estimate, if this continues at the same rate, it will take close to 60 years for Hispanic federal employees to match the proportion of their population.

This is troubling. And another thing to consider is that this is more than a numbers game.

It is symbolically important to have Hispanics in roles that have, effectively, nothing to do with being Latino because for most Hispanics — a majority of whom are U.S.-born — their identities and life goals are not defined exclusively by where their parents came from.

It's a distinction that might not be obvious to people who aren't underrepresented in their professions: well-educated, highly qualified experts who just happen to be minorities don't strive to do their jobs just for those who share their race or ethnicity. They want to serve everyone.

Sure, it makes sense that the Small Business Administration, Education and Housing and Urban Development are led by experts who resemble the largest constituencies of their departments. For instance, according to Stanford University, the number of Latino-owned business grew by 46.9 percent between 2007 and 2012, compared with just 0.7 percent for non-Latino owned businesses. And in the realm of education, one in every four elementary school students is Hispanic.

But it would be extra thrilling to see, for instance, a Hispanic female treasury secretary or a Latino secretary of defense. Same thing for a Hispanic head of state, commerce or transportation because, unfortunately, when many people think of Hispanics, they conjure up images of lawn maintenance workers and maids, not of finance executives or military experts. We need to flip these scripts.

First things first, however. Romero-Cruz says the top Latinos we do have are breaking important ceilings for others. "A decade from now we will hopefully see more internship opportunities, more pipeline development from these barrier-breakers who will be looking for new talent to come up behind them."

For now, there's only hope that the two presidential candidates — who openly boast about how close to or popular they are with Hispanics — will actually prove it when they form their administrations.

estherjcepeda@washpost.com

Twitter, @estherjcepeda

 

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