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Study examines role of race in political representation

Kenneth J. Cooper | 6/21/2011, 11:25 p.m.

White Democrats were also less likely to get back to DeShawn — a 7-point difference. But Democratic lawmakers who are minorities were more inclined to respond to DeShawn than Jake, by a whopping margin of nearly 17 percentage points.

“White legislators of both parties discriminate against the black alias at nearly identical, statistically significant rates, while minority legislators do the opposite, responding more frequently to the black alias,” Butler and Broockman write.

They add: “Our findings are important because they demonstrate the existence of systemic discrimination.”

Butler says he and Broockman were surprised that “partisan interest” did not trump race: “We thought people would be motivated primarily by political interest.”

Electing minority officeholders to represent minority voters is sometimes seen as a symbolic act of identifying with someone of the same race or ethnicity. The study indicates that minority elected officials provide the functional benefit of being more responsive to minority constituents.

“With some on the Supreme Court ready by all accounts to declare discrimination a fact of the past in the American political system, our experiment reveals the opposite — we found that legislators of every racial group engaged in significant levels of discrimination in favor of their racial group,” Butler and Broockman conclude.

“Race still matters in American politics — both for elected officials and their constituents. While the election of Barack Obama as the United States’ first president is an auspicious development for race relations in America, our politics are still not colorblind.”