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Study examines role of race in political representation

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Anyone who cites the election of Barack Obama as proof the country has gotten beyond race should consider what Yale University researchers discovered in a new study that shows discrimination persists in political representation.

Their research, conducted in the final weeks before Obama’s election, found white state legislators were less responsive to a request for help registering to vote if the possible constituent had a black-sounding name. The pattern held true for white Republicans as well as white Democrats, even though most African Americans vote Democratic. Minority legislators, on the other hand, got back to the prospective black voter much more often than white legislators of either party did.

“This suggests, as many have argued, that the race of elected officials significantly affects how well minorities are represented. Our results also suggest that race remains a significant barrier to equality in the American political system,” Yale professor Daniel M. Butler and student David E. Broockman conclude in an article forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science.

Butler, a political science professor who specializes in the responsiveness of public officials, says the team has confirmed those findings in follow-up studies done since Obama has been president.

Two Supreme Court decisions in 2008 prompted Butler and Broockman to conduct the research. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the court upheld a law in the Indiana county that requires voters to present identification. The majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts in a case from Texas, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, ominously suggested that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may no longer be warranted.

The Yale researchers believe their study shows otherwise. “We think race still matters, and the Voting Rights Act is still needed,” Butler says.

The study was conducted by sending a short e-mail to almost 5,000 state legislators from 44 states. The other six were left out because e-mail forms required an address, which Butler says the team did not want to fake for ethical reasons. Slightly more than half the lawmakers responded in short windows between early October and Nov. 4, Election Day in 2008, a period when voter registration deadlines came in some states.

The e-mails asking “Who should I call in order to register?” were from a “DeShawn Jackson” or a “Jake Mueller,” fictional individuals whose names were carefully selected. Previous studies have found nearly all Americans named DeShawn are black and almost all named Jake are white. The 2000 Census showed the surnames Jackson and Mueller also are strongly identified with one race.

In the random sample of legislators sent an e-mail inquiring about voting in primary elections, without specifying which party’s, about 60 percent replied to Jake and 55 percent to DeShawn, a difference of 5 percentage points.

Among white Republicans, who may have assumed DeShawn to be black and therefore a likely Democratic voter, the difference in the response rate was 8 points. But even when the e-mail stated an interest in voting in the Republican primary, Republican legislators were less responsive to DeShawn than to Jake, by about 5 points.

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.”