Light Brigading / Flickr

The unbearable whiteness of America’s donor class

Ninety percent of campaign contributions in 2012 came from white Americans

January 8, 2015 2:00AM ET

The rise of money in U.S. politics has been widely discussed in the wake of two controversial decisions by the Supreme Court: Citizen’s United and McCutcheon v. FEC. However, the discussion has largely been framed along class lines — with the voices of the poor and middle class drowned out by the explosion of donations and political activity by wealthy elites. While this is true, there is also an important racial element to the rise of big money in politics. For example, a recent report by Demos found that the dominance of money in politics has slowed racial and economic progress (PDF) in the United States.

Political donations are deeply racialized, with more than 90 percent of contributions above $200 made to presidential campaigns and super PACs in 2012 coming from majority-white neighborhoods. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution found that all of the most politically active U.S. billionaires, with possible exception of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is of Persian-American origin, are white. Similarly, the top 10 Republican and top 10 Democratic donors in 2012 appear to be white, according to Demos. There are scarcely any comprehensive data about the race of donors. A preliminary report on donors in New York City’s 2009 municipal elections conducted by Public Campaign found that the lowest-tier contributions came from more diverse neighborhoods than the top-tier donations. Contributors from predominantly African-American neighborhoods accounted for 30 percent of donations of $10 or less but only 5 percent of donations over $2,500, according to the report.

For whites, the trend is reversed, with people from white neighborhoods accounting for 78 percent of donations over $2,500 and 38 percent of donations of $10 or less. The lowest-tier contributors were from neighborhoods where people of color make up 73 percent of the population, while those donating more than $2,500 lived in districts where people of color make up only 26 percent. Small donors lived in neighborhoods with a 17.14 percent poverty rate and a median income of $53,790, while the top donors came from communities with a 5.14 percent poverty rate and a median income of $111,170.

2009 New York City Elections,
Race and ethncity by donor level

Sources: Public Campaign 2009 New York City elections and Census demographic data.

Campaign contributions facilitate access, influence legislative agendas and, of course, help get those agendas passed. The widening gap in the level of donations means that people of color will not be represented as well as whites. In their seminal work on political equality in the United States, John Griffin and Brian Newman found that “whites get what they want more often than do Latinos or African-Americans.” This lack of representation is not simply due to class differences. “This is true even beyond the effects of income differences between the groups and even when minorities make up a substantial proportion of a constituency,” according to Griffin and Newman.

In his book “Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America” Paul Frymer found that Democrats ignore the preferences of African-American voters, a “captured minority,” in order to win over white voters. Since blacks have chosen not to defect to the Republican Party, they struggle for representation by the Democrats. “All too often the Democratic Party has taken the black vote for granted, and all too often the Republican Party has written it off,” Jack Kemp, then a Republican nominee for vice president, said during a campaign stop in Harlem in 1999. In a study comparing voter preferences on government spending levels to presidential budget proposals from 1974 to 2010, Griffin and Newman found that “presidential requests are much more responsive to the budget preferences of whites and the wealthy.” They found that the gap for African-Americans is smaller when a Democrat is in office than when a Republican is.

This has important effects on legislation, as whites and people of color differ strongly on many issues, particularly those related to class. As the chart below shows, the differences on preferences about redistribution between whites and people of color (14 points) are stronger than the differences along class lines (10 points). A 2012 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that differences on whether the government should spend money on jobs versus reducing deficit are similarly strong along race lines (23 points) compared with class (11 points). On issues relating to race, recent polls show huge racial gaps on the perceptions of major American institutions. 

Views on reducing the wealth gap

Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue politices that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less-well-off Americans?

Source: Post/ABC Poll: December monthly, 2013.

The funding gap between black and white communities also makes it difficult for candidates of color to raise money. Candidates of color raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in all 2006 state legislative races and 64 percent less in the South. This is an important barrier for potential candidates who already face discrimination by voters. The lack of diversity in candidates is problematic, given the importance of descriptive representation (in which politicians share salient qualities such as race with their constituents) for substantive representation where candidates share their constituents’ policy preferences. “Descriptive representation independently improves the relative representation of minorities” and in some cases leads to political equality, according to Griffin and Newman. In a 2012 study in the American Journal of Political Science, Eric Juenke and Roper Preuhs found that candidates of color represent constituents of color better than white candidates do. However, as Jason Zengerle notes in The New Republic, black representatives, particularly in the South, are increasingly in the minority as white Democrats fall to coordinated campaign money from big donors. At all levels, big money politics stifles the representation of people of color.

The lack of representation has had major effects on people of color, as Adam Lioz documents in a series of case studies. For instance, the private prison system has lobbied extensively to maintain the carceral state, which primarily affects men of color. At the same time, the financial system has engaged in blatant racism, aided by lax regulatory policies. According to a study by the Center for Responsible Lending, among borrowers with good credit, people of color received a high interest rate loan three times as frequently as white borrowers. Reports also show racist lending practices by bank employees. “Employees had referred to blacks as ‘mud people’ and to subprime lending as ‘ghetto loans,’” according to a 2009 report by The New York Times. Such acts were possible because of lax regulation because of the massive political power of the financial sector.

There are several ways to fight the big money bias. For one, public financing has proved effective in eliminating the big money bias in the political system. A 2012 study published by The Election Law Journal found (PDF) that New York City’s donor-matching program has shifted the class and racial diversity of donors. It empowered small donors (a pool more diverse than large donors) and increased the absolute number of campaign contributors. Second, to limit the influence of big money in U.S. elections, we need policies that could boost voter turnout.

However, as Griffin and Newman point out, there are limits to the strategy: The benefits of representation are not as strong for blacks and Hispanics as for whites. In other words, African-Americans who vote aren't that much better represented than those who don't. This points to the importance of electing people of color to office, which does more to increase the representation of people of color. Still, a public financing program to reduce the influence of money in politics, sane lobbying reforms, same-day registration, an end to felony disenfranchisement and increased descriptive representation could go a long way to thwart the influence of big money in our politics.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter