Democracy in America: Politicians and Their Constituents – Race Still Matters
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently posted an entry on that publication’s blog discussing the findings of a field experiment by Yale Political Scientist, Dan Butler and his student, David Broockman. Butler and Broockman measured the responsiveness of public officials, in this case state legislators in 44 states, to the same email inquiry signed by two individuals, one with a “putatively black alias” and another with a “putatively white alias.”
The researchers had a 56.6% response rate (“2,747 responses to the 4,859 emails”). They found that, without regard to party affiliation, the state legislators contacted were less responsive to the email from the black alias than the email from the white alias, although Republican legislators, by a small percentage point, replied less than Democrats to the black alias. The researchers also found that “minority state legislators responded much more frequently to the black alias than to the white alias (by 16.5 percentage points overall).”
As Butler and Broockman point out, one issue surrounding the debate about the need for majority-minority legislative districts is whether elected officials are as responsive to the concerns of constituents whose racial identity is different. These researchers conclude, in part, “our results provide direct support for the broader argument that how effectively minorities are represented does depend on the race of their representative, regardless of party.”
David Brooks writes: “The study is one more indication that racial attitudes are deep, often below awareness.” In other words, implicit bias, not intentional or invidious race prejudice, has wide-spread impacts. But his example suggests that he misunderstands implicit bias. Alas, we all still have a lot of work to do on race in America.
Brooks writes: “I am sometimes at gatherings where everybody but me is a Republican. I am sometimes at gatherings where everybody but me is a Democrat. In my experience people at all Republican gatherings do not make more racist or condescending comments than people at all Democratic gatherings. The frequency of these comments is about the same across the parties.”
Explicit racist comments are not examples of racial attitudes “below our awareness.” Whites, who as Brooks suggests say nothing when other whites make racist or condescending comments, especially in social settings, are what Janis McDonald characterizes as “polite whites.” They may be offended, but say nothing to preserve their “white privilege.” Polite whites tend to avoid confrontations on hard issues like race. But that is not my problem. Whites who believe in racial equality need to stop being so polite or racist attitudes will continue. I will try to do my part with my racial identity group.
Nevertheless, I commend David Brooks for giving this issue wider exposure. But I would advise him to read up on implicit bias – visit Harvard University’s Project Implicit or read the works in this area by legal scholar Jerry Kang. As to the value of minority-majority legislative districts, this contentious debate will continue and the Butler-Broockman study can be used as ammunition by both sides.