The “Black Nod”: What a simple gesture tell us about Congress

Capitolby James R. Jones

Throughout the course of the day, amidst a sea of gawking tourists and politicking lawmakers, African American employees nod to one another while walking in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol. In a recently published study, I investigated why Black staffers nod to one another and what it means.

The Black professional staff I interviewed often brushed the nod off as a common cultural practice shared among African Americans outside of Capitol Hill. However, my analysis shows that what happens in these ephemeral interactions goes beyond signaling a quick greeting. Instead, it conveys important information about what it means to be Black while working in a White-dominated political institution.

My findings demonstrate that what happens in micro-level encounters is not just about the individuals involved, but also characterizes and embodies a complex socio-historical relationship about race and power in the United States and in Congress.

For this project, I conducted over 60 interviews with current and former congressional staffers. I also spent three summers as a congressional intern, where I would roam the halls of Congress and record interactions.

My qualitative data provided me with a way of understanding how the inequalities that permeate the congressional workplace shape identity, interactions, and relationships among employees. In addition, I use this interpretive foundation to reconceptualize our understanding of Congress as a raced political institution.

What does the “Black nod” mean?

The nod is a gesture of acknowledgment. The interaction begins with establishing eye contact and then is followed by a subtle lowering of the head. As many participants explained the nod was not a gesture that was unique to Capitol Hill, but that they regularly used to signal solidarity to other Black people in majority-white environments.

As they put it, the nod meant “I see you.” The nod then became a tool that they used make to themselves and others like them visible.

In Congress, the exchange of the nod became a moment in which Black staffers could convey and share, albeit briefly, the struggles and frustrations of working in a majority-white institution.

I found that the nod transcended political and occupational boundaries. In this case, the nod happened across party lines amongst Black Democrats and Black Republicans and up and down the occupational ladder between Black service employees, staffers, and members of Congress. In addition, I observed how the nod was taught in informal settings as a way to build networks of support that they could use for professional advancement.

The nod as tool to enhance visibility accentuates the persistent underrepresentation of Black staffers.

In interviews, Black staffers tended to think of the nod as a seemingly unremarkable racial gesture. Nonetheless, they enthusiastically answered my questions that I posed as a naïve observer by teaching me about racial interactions in Congress. They described routinely walking the hallways and being ignored by White staffers. The lack of acknowledgment or as some alleged the active strategies of White staffers to avoid recognizing the presence of people of color revealed in part the racialized dimensions of Congress.

In some ways, the limited sample of White staffers interviewed who were unaware of the nodding practice before them confirms the invisibility of Black staffers. Encounters like this fed a general racial paranoia about the status of Black workers in Congress and distributions of power. These perceptions of race and power reaffirmed the importance of nodding.

Respondents said nodding was important, but not everyone nodded. An analysis of not nodding revealed important gender, class, and age distinctions and the performative elements of race.

While Black women participated in nodding, they almost never initiated the exchange as it could be misconstrued as a sexual advance.

In addition, respondents inferred class distinctions about those who did not nod, suggesting that their privileged positon meant they were “not down with the race”.  Older and veteran Black staffers lamented that younger staffers did not nod and understand the importance of sticking together even as the size of group expanded in recent decades.

When respondents discussed moments in which a nod was not initiated or reciprocated they unknowingly expressed their thoughts about what the Black community on Capitol Hill should be.

The “Black nod” contributes to shaping and reproducing racial boundaries in Congress. The gesture acts as an important signal to communicate an individual’s understanding of race. This sometimes leads to a policing of race, where Black staffers intervene and educate other Black professionals on social etiquette and the racialized dimensions of their professional identity. Here, the nod become an important moment to close ranks and to build networks of Black professionals that increase the size and scope of Black power amidst the vast whiteness on Capitol Hill.

The nod as a dimension of Black staffers’ racialized professional identity reveals the ways in which the group subtly and subversively works to confront persistent racial hierarchies and inequalities.

In the article, I use the nod as way to bridge disparate literatures on gendered organizations and critical race theory. Focusing on Congress, I contribute to a growing body of work on racial organizations and point to the social and cultural mechanisms that (re)produce race in institutions. As perhaps the first sociological study of the congressional workplace, I highlight the informal social structure of Congress and the further need to study congressional staffers and inequality in the legislature more broadly.

James Jones is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of African American and Africana Studies at Rutgers University in Newark. This article is summarizes findings from “Racing Through the Halls of Congress” in the Du Bois Review. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.

Image: USCapitol via Flickr

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