That’s true even when Blacks and Latinos are in the majority

By Jesse H. Rhodes, Brian F. Schaffner and Raymond J. La Raja | September 3, 2020

Around the nation, residents in communities large and small have been protesting police violence and systemic racism. The scale of the protests is staggering. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement may be the largest mass movement in American history.

Understandably, much of the reporting on the protests has highlighted one of the most egregious indicators of racial injustice: police killing unarmed citizens of color. These killings reveal fundamental racial inequalities in U.S. society.

We know that African Americans face routine surveillance, harassment, beatings, and oppressive fees and fines. Underneath many of these injustices lies a less visible fact: In most communities, municipal governments do not represent African American and Latino citizens’ interests. Our research finds that while local governments respond to Whites’ concerns, they largely ignore the demands of residents of color, except when African Americans or Latinos represent a large share of the population.

Here’s how we did our research.

In our book, “Hometown Inequality,” we used data from Catalist — a large data vendor with information on more than 240 million U.S. adults — to investigate racial inequalities in representation in a representative sample of more than 500 communities from around the United States. Because Catalist includes measures of individuals’ race and political ideology (shown to be highly accurate), we could examine the ideologies of different racial groups within communities. We paired this information with measures of the ideologies of municipal councilors, which we also obtained from Catalist after identifying these individuals and matching them into the database. Then we measured local government policies to determine how well or poorly they represented the ideologies of local Whites, African Americans, and Latinos.

Whites’ (but not Blacks’ or Latinos’) views are well-represented, whether they’re a big or small proportion of the community.

To assess how well municipal councilors represented Whites, African Americans and Latinos, we first examined the “distance” between the average ideology of the council and the average ideology of each racial group. Since each group’s ideology was measured on a 100-point scale in Catalist, the “distance” is simply the difference between the average ideology of the council and the average ideology of each group. Using this measure, a smaller distance means better representation, and a larger distance indicates worse representation.

We assumed that groups should be better represented when they make up a larger share of the community, on the theory that larger groups should be better able to elect like-minded representatives to their councils. For example, when African Americans make up 40 percent of a community’s population, they should be as well-represented as Whites would be if they made up 40 percent of that community’s population — if representation is racially equitable.

That’s not what we find. As you can see in the figures below, Whites’ ideologies were closest to those of municipal councilors, whether they were a small or large proportion of the population. For instance, Whites’ average ideology was about 10 points away from that of their local elected officials whether they made up 40 percent or 80 percent of the population.

Click here to see the figures on The Monkey Cage >

But as you can see in the two figures below, council members are quite distant ideologically from African Americans and Latinos, until those groups make up 40 percent or more of the community. In fact, when Black residents make up 40 percent of the population, they’re still nearly 20 points away from their local elected officials — twice as far as Whites in the same position. Only when they’re a very large majority are African Americans and Latinos as well represented ideologically as Whites are when they represent a small minority.

What’s more, local governments enacted Whites’ preferred policies more than other groups.

To find which groups’ preferred policies were most reflected in the policies actually adopted by local governments, we combined information about dozens of municipal policies to create a measure of local policy liberalism — focusing on policies to ameliorate inequalities, such as anti-poverty programs, rent controls, housing policies for elderly people and those with disabilities, after-school programs, and so forth. These are especially relevant for studying which racial and class groups’ interests get translated into government policy. We scored communities that reported a greater number of progressive policies as more “liberal” and those that adopted fewer as more “conservative.” We then checked to see how much each group’s ideology influenced the community’s policy liberalism score, controlling for factors like the community’s size, racial composition and income.

We consistently found that local governments were most likely to enact policies consistent with their White residents’ ideologies. That’s true even where Whites are a minority. Even in the 105 cities and towns we studied where people of color are the majority, local policies are liberal only if local Whites are liberal.

By comparison, in these communities, local policy moved in the opposite direction of what residents of color wanted.

Of course, local governments sometimes respond to the demands of Black and Latino residents. But when a community’s Whites and people of color have very different ideologies, Whites’ preferences typically win out, even when they’re the minority.

In many communities, local democracy is failing African American and Latino residents.

Jesse H. Rhodes is a professor and chair of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the associate director of UMass Poll.

Brian F. Schaffner (@b_schaffner) is the Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies in political science at Tufts University.

Raymond J. La Raja (@raylaraja) is a professor of political science and associate dean at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the associate director of UMass Poll.

Together they are the authors of “Hometown Inequality: Race, Class, and Representation in American Local Politics” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Click here to read the article on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage >