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Study: Politicians Likelier to Engage with Voters of Their Race

New research from Yale finds that all politicians privilege "their own" when it comes to constituent engagement.

A new study out of Yale (PDF) about how politicians engage with potential voters has emerged just as Republicans and Democrats start seeking to register voters for the 2012 presidential election. Called "Do Politicians Racially Discriminate?" the research paper by professor Daniel Butler and his student David Broockman sought to find out if state legislators responded differently to constituents based on their race. Sadly, the answer to that question was a resounding yes.

Posing as two different constituents, one with the stereotypically black name DeShawn Jackson, and one with the stereotypically white name Jason Mueller, Butler and Broockman sent emails to thousands of state legislators asking for help registering to vote. The response wasn't partisan, it was racist, and all parties and races were to blame.

We find that the putatively black alias continues to be differentially treated even when the emails signal partisanship, indicating that strategic considerations cannot completely explain the observed differential treatment. Further analysis reveals that white legislators of both parties exhibit similar levels of discrimination against the black alias. Minority legislators do the opposite, responding more frequently to the black alias.


It wasn't an issue of political party either. Butler and Broockman discovered that white legislators, irrespective of their party affiliation, were significantly more likely to get in touch with the white voter than the black voter. Minorities showed a similar bias. Minority Democrats were almost 17 percent more likely to contact the black voter than the white voter.

There weren't enough minority Republicans involved in the study to significantly gauge their reaction, but the lesson about the others is frightening, especially for minorities. We already know how skewed toward whites politics is in general. If the only way for people of color to be recognized by their elected leaders is to have more diversity in higher office, that's all the more reason for blacks, Latinos, women, and other marginalized groups to become more politically active.

This should also serve as a reminder to all politicians and their staffers that disenfranchising minorities by ignoring their attempts at political engagement—presumably because they're less wealthy and powerful—will only create a cycle in which minorities don't participate well in civic life and, for that reason, remain less wealthy and powerful.

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