theatlantic | The recent unrest in Baltimore, Ferguson, and other cities is puzzling in one important respect. Unlike in earlier eras, when African Americans’ political exclusion drove them to protest, blacks today are as likely to vote as whites and are well represented at all levels of government. The mayor of Baltimore and a majority of its city council are black. So are forty-five members of Congress—an all-time high. And, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, so is the current occupant of the White House. Why all the turmoil, then, at a time when blacks—finally—seem to be enjoying the fruits of American democracy?
One answer is that the appearance of black political clout is deceiving. Despite their gains in participation and representation, blacks continue to fare worse than whites in converting their policy preferences into law. This poor performance is more revealing than statistics on turnout or black electoral success. And even though its causes remain mysterious, it is very much a rationale for frustration with the status quo.
In a recent study, I analyzed group political power at the federal and state levels. At the federal level, I relied on a remarkable database compiled by Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens. It includes responses to thousands of survey questions from the last few decades. Crucially, it also tracks whether each policy referred to by a question was adopted by the federal government over the next four years. At the state level, I measured people’s ideologies using exit polls that asked whether they are liberal, moderate, or conservative. And I assessed state laws using an index of overall policy liberalism created by another pair of scholars.
At both levels, I found that blacks hold much less sway than whites. For example, a federal policy with no white support has only a 10 percent chance of being enacted, while one with universal white support has a 60 percent shot of adoption. But while a proposal with no black support has a 40 percent chance of becoming law, one enjoying unanimous approval has only a 30 percent probability of enactment. In other words, as support for a policy rises within the black community, the odds of it being achieved actually decline.
Likewise, whether most black voters are conservative or liberal, state legislative outcomes barely budge. But vary the views of white voters to an equivalent degree, and a state’s policies go from looking like Alabama’s to resembling Michigan’s, even controlling for black and white population size.
The story is similar for several other groups. The more that women, the poor, or Hispanics support a federal policy, the less likely the policy is to be enacted. Strikingly, as women move from universal opposition to a proposal to universal support, its odds of adoption plummet from 75 percent to 10 percent. Changes in the ideology of female or poor voters also have no effect on state legislative outcomes (although shifts in the views of Hispanic voters do). In contrast, both federal and state laws are acutely sensitive to the preferences of whites, men, and the rich.