"White Residents, Black Incumbents, and a Declining Racial Divide" by Zoltan L. Hajnal, and "The Effect of Black Congressional Representation on Political Participation" by Claudine Gay, in American Political Science Review (Sept. 2001), American Political Science Assoc., 1527 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.
Does having a black representative in Congress, such as John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), or Albert Wynn (D-Md.), encourage their black constituents to become more politically involved? Does having a black mayor make white voters more likely to vote for black candidates or affect their views on racially charged issues? Two studies yield some intriguing, but disparate, results.
Hajnal, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, examines why, given the choice between a white and a black candidate, "the vast majority of white Americans will vote for a white candidate, even if it means switching parties." Voter surveys indicate that whites assume that the black candidate, once elected, would shift resources to black constituents. Yet studies show that black "leadership does not greatly improve the economic well-being of African Americans at the city, regional, or state level." Since the white voters’ fears are rarely borne out, do their attitudes toward black candidates change once they experience a black incumbent?
To some extent, yes. Looking at mayoral contests between 1984 and 1992, some involving first-time black candidates, others pitting black incumbents against both white and black challengers, Hajnal examined both voting patterns and attitudes on a number of issues, such as school integration, affirmative action, and government assistance to blacks. He found that "on average, white support for the same black candidate increased by 25 percent when s/he became an incumbent." Even in white-majority cities, black incumbents running against white challengers were reelected 74 percent of the time. Having a black mayor also seemed to change white attitudes on racial issues over time. Most change occurred among white Democrats, some among white moderates, and little or none among white Republicans. "Black leadership means even greater divisions between Democrats and Republicans," concludes Hajnal.
What effect does black leadership have on black voters? Gay, a political scientist at Stanford University, studied voter participation in 10 congressional districts represented by African Americans during the early 1990s. Most of the districts had a majority of black and other minority voters. Voting rights advocates who pushed for the creation of such districts believed that "black congressional representation [would] lead not only to more progressive legislation but also to greater appreciation by African Americans of the instrumental value of political participation." But Gay found that "only occasionally" did black voter turnout rates rise in black-represented districts. And turnout among whites was significantly lower (by five to 18 percentage points) when compared with turnout among white voters in other districts.
The seemingly conflicting findings of these two studies may have a logical explanation. Hajnal focuses on races for local offices, which can have a more direct effect on the daily lives of voters. As Gay observes, members of Congress do not have comparable impact. Their influence stems more from the "symbolic politics" of images and issues. She theorizes that black representatives who vigorously support policies favoring their minority constituents may actually encourage disengagement of those constituents from politics once they achieve election. She points to the example of Maryland’s Albert Wynn, who attracted more black voters in 1994 after he began eschewing "expressions of militancy for pronouncements on national issues."