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.

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8 Responses

  1. Mike Zimmer says:

    One minor point to add: The expression of stereotypical thinking by a speaker is sometimes at least an example of racial attitudes “below” the speaker’s awareness because as a “polite white” the speaker would not say what he or she said if the speaker was aware of its racial meaning. That is why, in anti-discrimination litigation, evidence of those expressions can be so powerful.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Alas, we all still have a lot of work to do on race in America.”

    Based on that study, most of the work needs to be done among blacks, not whites. The black legislators’ response rates showed enormously more racial bias than the white legislators’ responses.

  3. For Brett:

    In a recent survey, almost half of Mississippi Republican voters polled said interracial marriage should be illegal. Sad thing is, that’s not even very surprising.

    By Chauncey DeVega (April 11, 2011)

    Once more the Republican Party showed us who they are and have always been. It would seem that “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

    Yesterday, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, CNN released a poll that showed that 25 percent of the general public and some 40 percent of Southerners sympathize more with the rebellious Confederacy than with the Union. And in a particularly revealing inversion of the historical record–more than half of the Republicans surveyed believe that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.

    Not content to merely support an insurrection against the duly elected government of the United States, 80 percent of the Republicans surveyed by CNN also expressed admiration for the leaders of the South–a cabal whose allegiance to white supremacy was most tellingly summed up by the Vice President of the Confederacy’s sentiment that its, “…foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

    Echoing the Tea Party GOP’s neo-Confederate longings, last week an equally troubling bit of polling data was released which highlighted how the Right-wing yearns for a return to “tradition” and the “good old days” in the Age of Obama.

    Public Policy Polling surveyed self-identified Republican voters in Mississippi. They were asked a series of questions regarding issue positions and their likelihood of voting for a given Republican presidential candidate in the 2012 race. Among their findings: apparently, race still matters to the good Tea Party GOP voters of Mississippi, with 46 percent of the respondents indicating that interracial marriage should be illegal. And in good news for Sarah Palin, those who supported her were significantly more likely to oppose marriage across the colorline.

    For students of race and public opinion these findings should not be surprising. While there has certainly been a clear and demonstrable shift in white Americans’ racial attitudes, racial animus and old fashioned bigotry have moved from the “frontstage” (enshrined in law, seen as virtues and not sins) to the “backstage” (in private, shared only with other like minded folks, or when a person believes that no one is listening).

    Racism and white supremacy certainly exist as social forces in 21st-century American life–where they are now more structural than interpersonal–yet the paradox remains that the expression of racist values and thoughts will result in one being thrown out of the public square.

    Beyond some superficial and feigned shock and awe at the fact that a significant percentage of self-identified, die-hard Republican voters do not believe that interracial marriage should be legal, these findings are made truly significant when placed into a broader context. The election of Barack Obama and shifts in America’s racial demographics have caused no small amount of cognitive upset, racial paranoia, and bizarre behavior that goes well beyond mere partisanship and enters the realm of crazy talk on the part of the Tea Party GOP.

    Since the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land, America has been a collective witness to the theater of the absurd. The standing bargains and consensus politics that came out of the Civil War (and which cost the lives of 2 percent of the U.S. population, some 600,000 people) are now fodder for Republican candidates to play political football with. It is no longer the exclusive province of the fringe militia and late-night talk radio crowd to speak about secession, states’ rights, nullification, the revoking of birthright citizenship, and armed rebellion as necessary and real solutions to our political dilemmas. No, these are positions that are casually offered by leading Republican figures such as Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and others.

    Not content to destroy the consensus politics that came out of the 19th century, the Tea Party GOP is also targeting for destruction the progressive gains of the 20th century and the civil rights movement. In the Age of Obama when white conservative demagogues claim Dr. King as their own and talk out of both sides of their mouths while screaming about how white people are “oppressed,” they are signaling to an inversion of reality in which one of the greatest sins in this country’s history was not the enslavement of black folks and the regime of Jim Crow. In this reframing, the sin is implicitly made how everyday people dared to challenge white (male) privilege, power and control over all things formally “American.”

    When Republicans such as Rand Paul suggest revoking the Civil Rights Act, they are taking one more step in a grand plan that seeks to destroy the social safety net in this country, and to rewrite the understanding that the State has an obligation to protect its citizens and to ensure the general welfare. As opposed to thinking of these events in isolation (or as “merely” about race), they are part of a bigger political universe that is linked to the destruction of unions, the removal of any limits on the ability of corporate actors to influence democracy, and austerity policies that balance the budget on the backs of the working, middle classes, and poor while continuing a massive (mal)distribution of wealth upward to the top 5 percent of earners.

    In total, the politics of race and white racial resentment–be they manifest by hostility to Muslim and Arab Americans, naked xenophobia against Hispanics and Latinos, the birther movement, or efforts to rewrite Texas history books and to ban ethnic studies–as played by the Tea Party GOP are the miner’s canary that speak to a bigger game.

    Styles make fights. The base of the Tea Party GOP, as typified by Mississippi Republicans and the party faithful’s longing for the Confederacy, is moved and motivated by race baiting both gross and subtle (for example, through the coded language of “American exceptionalism”). If the field of potential Republican presidential candidates in 2012 offers any indication, the Tea Party GOP will continue to rest their chances on how well they can motivate this racially resentful base.


  4. One minor rhetorical infelicity: When DeVega refers to what the Repubican Party “[has] always been,” he’s no doubt referring to the party most of us have known in our lifetime, as well as the Republican Party of our parents’ generation, not the political party of Abraham Lincoln (in any case, that would be in reference to what was termed by Brett in a comment to an earlier and related post as ‘ancient history’).

  5. Shag from Brookline says:

    People like Rand Paul should understand that the demographics, including geographical distributions, are quite different today than they were 150 years ago. People of that ilk may be serving as enablers of an “Uncivil War.”

  6. Brett Bellmore says:

    Patrick, from your link: “And in a particularly revealing inversion of the historical record–more than half of the Republicans surveyed believe that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.”

    I find I’d have to agree with that. Slavery was the cause of Southern secession. It was not the cause of the Civil war, the Union had other reasons for going to war with the South. Lincoln himself said as much. But perhaps this position is too nuanced to come across in a poll, or be acceptable?

    At any rate, I’m living in South Carolina, I’m half of an inter-racial couple, my next door neighbors are an inter-racial couple, several of my friends are in such marriages. Curiously, none of us have noticed any animosity over this. Which makes me find this poll result, at a minimum, peculiar. Not necessarily wrong, mind you, but peculiar. (For instance, the cross tab between that question and ideology found opposition to inter-racial marriage was highest among liberal Republicans, lowest among the conservatives…) I’d like to see what the results were for Democrats. (Conspicuously omitted from the press release.) And, considering that his WAS, after all, from a rather partisan polling organization, (Not proof the poll was rigged, mind you, but suggestive of the motive being present.) I’d like to see a similar poll by somebody who didn’t have a stake in the outcome. I’m painfully aware that there are ways to rig the outcomes of polls, if you really want to.

    In short, could be, but you’d have to provide better proof before I’d believe it, instead of my lying eyes.

  7. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett says:

    ” … the Union had other reasons for going to war with the South.”

    suggesting that the North precipitated the War. Which side fired the first shots? As with the tango, it takes two. Secession resulted from slavery, the Civil War resulted, virtually no degrees of separation. As to Brett’s “lying eyes,” there were extensive comments on an earlier post in this regard that viewers might examine. Brett presents anecdotal evidence of a personal nature limited, it seems, to his South Carolina inter-racial “ghetto” neighborhood, sort of serving as blinders. (By the way, the first shots were fired in Brett’s current home state with its attack on the Federal Fort Sumter.)

  8. My extended family, which is predominantly White (Irish, German, Bohemian), includes those of Black Jewish, Black-Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese ancestry. While it gives me hope for the future, I won’t defer to such anecdotal evidence in an attempt to refute the proposition that “race still matters.”

    It’s a bit disingenuous to cite the motives of pollsters and the fact that they’re subject to distortion or manipulation only when the results are not to your liking. One could leave aside the poll results and examine the rest of the piece and learn something that remains troubling about race and politics in this country that is compatible with, if not supportive of, Professor Banks’s post.

    “Proof” is an impossible and, in this case, far too subjective a standard for rational persuasion, while the evidence for the proposition that “race still matters” strikes one as rather overwhelming.*

    A stubborn refusal to listen to the gentle voice of reason might prompt one to infer that states of denial, cognitive biases, irrational fears or debilitating passions are interfering with rational communication.

    * Here’s a mangageable list of titles from one conspicuous area of our social and political life for compelling evidence for the proposition that “race still matters:”

    Alexander, Michelle (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

    Butler, Paul (2009). Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. New York: The New Press.

    Kennedy, Randall (1997) Race, Crime, and the Law. New York: Pantheon Books.

    King, Gilbert (2008) The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South. New York: Basic Civitas.

    Mauer, Marc (2nd ed., 2006) Race to Incarcerate. New York: The Free Press.

    Miller, Jerome G. (1997) Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Ogletree, Charles J., Jr. and Austin Sarat, eds. (2006) From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America. New York: New York University Press.

    Reinarman, Craig and Harry G. Levine, eds. (1997) Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Russell, Katheryn K. (1999) The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear…. New York: New York University Press.

    Tonry, Michael (1996) Malign Neglect: Race, Crime and Punishment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Western, Bruce (2006) Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publ.