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Race and gender matter for representation

The US political system ignores black women’s voices in policy decisions more than any other minority group

August 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

Much of the commentary on the policies of the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential contenders ignores how race, class and gender interact with political representation. The reality is that low-income constituents, women and people of color are not getting their fair share from the U.S. government. A new study by University of California researcher Zoltan L. Hajnal, currently under review by co-authors John Griffin, Brian Newman, and David Searle, examines the effects of class, race and gender on representation.

Their findings are stunning: For white people, class works as expected, with richer whites getting better representation than poorer whites. But, for black people, there is no class effect and high-income black households receive slightly less political representation than low-income black families. The authors also found that black women’s voices “are likely to overlooked” in policy decisions more than any other minority group.

For years, studies on representation focused primarily on class, education and political knowledge. In 2004 a task force commissioned by the American Political Science Association’s cautioned that (PDF) the United States’ “ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government may be under growing threat in an era of persistence and rising inequalities.” This prompted academics to dive deeper into the question of how race affects political influence and representation.

In their seminal 2009 book, “Minority Report,” political scientists Brian Newman and John Griffin found that black people and Hispanics had less representation than whites. More recently, legal scholar Nicholas Stephanopoulos analyzed data from state exit polls and legislative outcomes over three decades and found that women, poor people and minorities had very little representation.

Hajnal and his co-authors use more than 40 years of data on preferences of individual voters for spending in 11 key federal policies, including foreign aid, crime and healthcare, to measure government responsiveness. The authors then examine government spending on those issues to see whether the government enacted the policy preferences of minorities and low-income individuals or not. (The authors treated those whose government spending preferences were enacted as winners and those whose preferences were ignored as policy losers.)

All groups enjoyed gains ranging from 30 to 40 percent based on spending preferences vis-à-vis spending outcomes. But the authors found a significant gap in representation across racial groups: Black people were policy winners 31.9 percent of the time, compared with 37.6 percent for white people. Asians enjoyed more representation than blacks and whites, Hispanics slightly less so. (The General Social Survey on Hispanics and Asian Americans is limited to a period of 10 years and thus not entirely comparable.) As the table below illustrates, there’s a 5.7 percentage point difference between blacks and whites, a 1.5-point difference between high-and low-income earners and 4.1 percentage difference based on educational status.

The researchers also found a modest gap in representation based on class. (Unlike some other research, they don’t find a gender gap.) The chart below shows the percentage point differences in being a policy winner based on racial differences and levels of income. Put simply, it’s better to be poor and white than rich and black in the United States. 

The authors attribute the disparity in political representation and influence partly to the fact that white people and the wealthy favor the Republican Party, while black people and low-income voters prefer Democrats. All other things equal, Hajnal and his co-authors argue that Republicans are 6.3 percent more likely to win than Democrats. But this doesn’t fully explain the representation gap. Others have offered group size, African-Americans’ spending habits and their preference for the minority position, which has lower levels of support, to explain this gap. Yet none of this can explain the lack of their representation in U.S. government.

“Other racial and ethnic minorities (namely Asians), the poor, the young, the unemployed, Jews, and Catholics all get roughly equal influence or in some cases more influence than their numbers would suggest,” the researchers wrote in one of the dispiriting conclusions from the study. “Only Black voices are differentially ignored.” Unsurprisingly, they also noted that the richest one percent of Americans shape public policy. Despite black people’s near-total lack of representation, the winning rate differences are narrowed slightly more on welfare, healthcare and crime, areas with high levels of salience. This suggests that African-Americans have stronger (though not equal) rates of representation in areas most important to them.

There is persuasive evidence that the U.S. political system is not living up to our democratic ideals.

On many key policy issues there are deep divides between whites and people of color (in some cases even larger than the gaps between high and low-income people). For instance, while 53 percent of whites say the government should pursue policies to reduce the wealth gap, 67 percent of people of color agree.

Similarly, when asked whether the government should spend money to create jobs or reduce the deficit, 50 percent of whites say reduce the deficit (compared with 42 percent for job creation); while 65 percent of people of color say spend money to create jobs (with 29 percent favoring deficit reduction). 

Hajnal and his co-authors found that economic growth boosts political representation for everyone, with the strongest effect for African-Americans. However, this too doesn’t quite explain the evident racial bias aimed at reducing black people’s political participation. Moreover, campaign donors are overwhelmingly white and there are few successful politicians of color (particularly women of color), which exacerbates the unequal representation.

While this is the first study of its kind, I hope it inspires more research on the intersectionality of race, gender and income levels in representation. Other research suggests that voter turnout gaps between the healthy and unhealthy also bias policies.

In sum, there is persuasive evidence that the U.S. political system is not living up to our democratic ideals. We need reforms to ensure equal political representation for all Americans. Among other things, a reform agenda should include automatic voter registration and non-partisan get-out-the-vote campaigns to boost turnout among non-voting populations. We must also end the practice of disenfranchising felons. Finally, to fight the influence of money in politics, we need robust public financing.

Political scientists have long understood that the American democracy had an upper-class accent — now we know it’s overwhelmingly white as well.

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.

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