is the US a racial democracy?

My friend Jason Stanley and his colleague Vesla Weaver have written an important New York Times piece arguing that the US is a “racial democracy,” by which they really mean a society that fails to be a democracy because of racial injustice. They argue that:

  1. Compared to other Americans and other groups around the globe, African Americans are far more likely to be targeted by the police, arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated. These disparities are far out of proportion to any differences in actual criminality.
  2. Involuntary contact with the criminal justice system suppresses political participation. Not only do felony convictions and prison sentences directly block voting, but being stopped, questioned, and/or searched by the police also reduces turnout. Stanley and Weaver note that 90 percent of the times when police stop young minorities, no evidence of wrongdoing is found.
  3. Disenfranchisement is a profound injustice. The authors cite Aristotle to the effect that “humans fully realize their nature in political participation, in the form of discussions and decision making with their fellow citizens about the affairs of state. To be barred from political participation is, for Aristotle, the most grievous possible affront to human dignity.”

I would endorse the argument and even add three points to it:

  • Black students are far more likely to be subjected to harsh discipline within schools, and that has also been found to suppress political participation (whereas feeling that one is a valued member of a school community encourages political engagement). Evidently, the school represents the state and sends a powerful message of exclusion or inclusion.
  • Several studies find that felony disenfranchisement laws depress the turnout of people who were never convicted of felonies, especially African Americans, in part by reducing the amount of election-related activity in their communities. In other words, if many residents cannot vote because they have felony convictions, canvassers don’t bother with the whole neighborhood.
  • Especially in poor minority neighborhoods, police sometimes shut down other forms of civic engagement beside voting. In one of our focus groups in Baltimore, for example, a young man said, “Democracy is … where everybody has an opinion. Like you got some places, it’s dictatorships where the people don’t have any opinion on nothing. … Because like everybody said here they had a situation where the police have come into your neighborhoods and told you all to go back in the house or do this or do that.  You know, so that’s not democracy.”

But although I generally endorse the argument, I do want to raise a complication. If one simply surveys a national sample of young Americans using a high-quality method, young African Americans will report voting at a rate at least as high as that of young White Americans. We find that pattern in our own surveys (calling cell phones as well as landlines), and the US Census finds it, too. According to the Census, 58 percent of African-American youth voted in 2008, the highest turnout rate of any youth racial/ethnic group since 1972. This is a surprising result because educational attainment and income strongly predict turnout, and young Black Americans still lag on those measures. One would conclude that being Black is, net of other factors, a positive correlate of voting.

To be sure, these surveys omit incarcerated youth, a point that Stanley and Weaver make, citing Becky Pettit’s book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress. The omission of prison populations from polls is a blatant problem, and a subtler bias could arise if the same factors that suppress turnout (e.g., harsh school discipline and unfair encounters with police) also reduce the likelihood of answering a survey.

Nevertheless, the high turnout of young African Americans who participate in surveys is a significant fact. Stanley and Weaver say, “one in 9 young black American men experienced the historic 2008 election from their prison and jail cells.” That implies roughly six percent of all young Blacks (including women), and even subtracting that proportion from the turnout rate in surveys would still leave a high level of voter participation. We wouldn’t predict that pattern if all we saw was a set of White-dominated institutions suppressing Black political participation. They try to do that, but they get some pushback. African Americans respond by mobilizing, with some support from outside the community. This does not excuse the injustice, but I think we get a distorted picture of “democracy” if we see only the policies of official institutions and neglect the agency of citizens.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.