Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this conversation, James R. Jones (assistant professor of African American studies and sociology, Rutgers University–Newark) spoke with Clare McGranahan (associate director of communications), discussing the key role of Black congressional workers in maintaining Capitol Hill’s functioning during the pandemic, and why these workers should be central to our understanding of the relationship between race, power, and inequality in Congress.

Workers wipe down chairs between Senate committee hearings in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill during the coronavirus outbreak in Washington, U.S. May 6, 2020. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool

Clare McGranahan (CM): Why did you select this image for the time capsule?

James R. Jones (JJ): I chose this image to help us both challenge and expand how we think about the relationship between the United States Congress and the coronavirus pandemic. Congress has been at the forefront of leading the federal response to the pandemic, and there’s been a lot of tension in terms of what it is doing and not doing. One thing this picture does is show us another side of Congress and how it’s dealing with this pandemic, particularly through the lens of Black workers.

In this image, we see a Black service worker cleaning a Senate chamber in between hearings. Members of Congress will be present for hearings, but they’ll most likely have a virtual audience, with witnesses streaming in to testify. It’s a dramatically different type of Congress than before the pandemic. Here we see the central role of Black workers play in maintaining the Capitol, in making sure that it is safe and secure, not unlike what Black and brown workers, essential workers, are doing across the nation. Black and brown workers, whether they’re employed on Capitol Hill or somewhere else, have a really important role to play in helping to sustain organizations. And in this picture, we see that playing out in a Senate building.

At the same time, Congress is supposed to look after these workers, and it is failing at this job for millions of American service workers—we can see this in, let’s say, the lack of continuity on unemployment insurance. This is happening with congressional workers as well—what’s also tied up in legislation to extend unemployment benefits is funding for cafeteria workers. There is now a real possibility that Senate cafeteria workers will be laid off around October 1 if there isn’t new legislation to provide more relief. So the pandemic is having dramatic effects not only on the people who are maintaining our communities, but also on those who are maintaining Capitol Hill and who directly serve members of Congress.

CM: What do you think would need to happen in order for Congress to fulfill its obligation to support the workers who are keeping its work functioning?

JJ: The congressional workplace is known as the invisible force in American lawmaking, particularly when it comes to congressional staffers. When you look at congressional service workers, they’re even more invisible. One of the reasons I chose this image is because I don’t think we will remember these people.

I want us to remember them, but also to acknowledge their contribution to lawmaking, which may be a little bit more indirect, but is nonetheless still important in understanding how Congress operates. I think the most important thing that we can do is show that these people exist. When we think about Congress, we do not think about the people who are cleaning a Senate hearing room. We’ll all watch these hearings, and we may pay attention to the staffers who are behind Senators and Representatives, who are perhaps drafting their questions. We think even less about how this room was set up, how it was cleaned, how these service workers are often not well paid.

I also think it’s important to understand that this is a majority Black and brown workforce. And that this invisibility and lack of concern is indicative of the racial caste system within Congress. In my own research, I’ve shown how Congress is an unequal workplace, an unrepresentative workplace. I think there needs to be more attention paid to how Congress is itself racialized, especially as it has the important task of addressing racial inequality, particularly in this moment.

CM: How do you think that is reflected in legislation, especially during a pandemic that is having a very unequal impact?

JJ: Congressional staff are the people who are going to be drafting these policies, and when it comes to bills related to the coronavirus, these are not small things—they’re hundreds of pages, and they’re really complicated. There’s going to be a whole team of people drafting legislation. This is important in the sense that we need to make sure that different communities are represented, that the right questions are being asked, particularly as it relates to communities of color and how they will be impacted, and whether they’re getting the resources they need.

I think where the importance of having a diverse workforce comes in is in how legislation is crafted, and whether it’s actually reaching the communities and having the desired impact that lawmakers intend. For example, we saw that the Paycheck Protection Program was rolled out in a way that made it inaccessible for many minority businesses.

CM: Is there anything happening in Congress at this moment that gives you hope for the future?

JJ: To be optimistic, I think the coronavirus is a watershed moment at which we understand the importance of governance and the need for our government to be filled with experts and people who—I’ll just be direct—believe in science. I think what we are witnessing right now is bad government. And to the extent to which that exists, I think the opposite is possible. It did not have to be this way, and good government can play a role.

As Congress in many ways falls short of its responsibilities with regard to the coronavirus, I hope that a new generation can see a place for themselves in political institutions to make sure this never happens again. It’s up to us to make the government that we want to see, the government that we need.

CM: What do you hope that future researchers will take away from this?

I would hope that future researchers take away the idea that Black workers are essential—and I don’t mean in the way in which we talk about “essential workers” more broadly. Black workers are central to understanding how Congress operates, and in particular how Congress operates as a racialized governing institution.

The decisions on Capitol Hill, whether they’re related to legislation or how jobs are organized, have the possibility to both create and/or minimize inequality. And Black workers are key to understanding this relationship between race, power, and inequality on Capitol Hill. We often think about these people as irrelevant to how Congress is operating, but they are participants in lawmaking and in how this institution works.

This conversation was conducted on August 28, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.