In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Racial and Ethnic Descriptive Representation in the United States and its Impact

  • Introduction
  • Important Works

Political Science Racial and Ethnic Descriptive Representation in the United States and its Impact
Robert R. Preuhs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0222


The study of racial and ethnic descriptive representation burgeoned over the last several decades as both the extension of voting rights occurred following passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) and with the United States’ diversifying demographic context. The sequence of academic research roughly follows from the subsequent increase in black and Latino representatives in all levels of government, their incorporation into legislative bodies, and the effects on both policy and constituent behavior and attitudes. Scholarship on the effects of the VRA and the electoral contexts that increase descriptive representation was the first to emerge. Researchers continue to focus on the degree to which the VRA enhances descriptive representation, the effect of electoral institutions, such as at-large versus ward-based elections, and the degree to which racial redistricting is necessary for the election of descriptive representatives, as well as its effects on the level of substantive representation. Recently, attention has been paid to candidate emergence and attempts to understand how the necessary condition for minority office holding, minority candidates, comes about. The increase in descriptive representation allows for studies of the degree to which descriptive representatives’ behavior departs from those of non-minority office holders. A bulk of this research relies on roll call voting and the conditions that affect dyadic substantive representation, such as party affiliation and the degree to which voting decisions relate to minority interests. A broader conception of substantive representation focuses on a range of legislative activities from committee work to bill sponsorship and constituent services. Topics of study expanded beyond these key formal roles as scholars evaluated a variety of less formal behaviors well documented in more general congressional scholarship. While the scholarship is more parallel than sequential, a natural extension is to ask what effect racial and ethnic diversification exerts on public policy. This literature almost exclusively examines local and state-level policies with significant effects demonstrated at both. An additional line of research encompasses descriptive representatives’ impacts on constituents’ behavior and attitudes, from voter mobilization to affect and trust. Thus, we may conceive of the literature as reflecting four distinct avenues of understanding: the election of descriptive representatives, the varied types of substantive representation of co-racial/ethnic group preferences, descriptive representative’s impact on policy, and finally, the impact of descriptive representatives on the attitudes and behaviors of their constituents.

Important Works

Significant studies of the election and impact of black and Latino descriptive representation highlight the major issues addressed throughout the literature. A necessary foundation for understanding the distinction between descriptive and substantive representation emerged early on (Pitkin 1967) with subsequent studies arguing for a more concise understanding of the conditions under which the election of racial/ethnic minority office-holders are meaningful (Mansbridge 1999) and what types of backgrounds of office holders are required to provide a unique level of minority group advocacy (Dovi 2002). The bulk of these works, however, take an empirical approach to understanding how descriptive representatives are elected and their impact on policy and substantive representation. Lublin 1997 presents the basis for understanding the perverse outcome of Republican gains after drawing majority-minority districts to ensure the election of minority members of Congress. Given the potential for worse policy outcomes, key questions regarding the way minority members behave in legislative settings emerged. Swain 1995 and Tate 2003 suggest that there are few differences in the behavior of black members of Congress, while Tate also finds that there are other effects on constituent attitudes. Canon 1999 and Whitby 1997 argue that general voting patterns lack a minority-specific component, and find that by examining minority-specific or racialized roll call votes, differences do emerge. An important advance in the tradition of roll-call analysis is the introduction of constituency-specific measures of policy preferences by Griffin and Newman 2008. While interests were assumed to be monolithic across constituencies in other studies, Griffin and Newman construct constituency-level measures of black and Latino preferences and document the unique level of substantive representation afforded by black and Latino representatives in Congress. At the local level, Browning, et al. 1984 studies local governments’ focuses on the impact of descriptive representation, highlighting the need for coalition membership to affect public policy and serving as a basis for much of the proceeding literature on policy impacts at both the local and state levels.

  • Browning, Rufus P., Dale R. Marshall, and David H. Tabb. Protest Is Not Enough: The Struggle for Blacks and Hispanics for Equality in Urban Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

    A groundbreaking study of black and Latino political incorporation in ten major Northern California cities with substantial black and Latino populations, it demonstrated both the effect of electing minority office holders on local government policy, as well as the requirement that they work within a dominant political coalition in order to shape public policy.

  • Canon, David T. Race, Redistricting, and Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    Covering a range of topics from the electoral success of black members of Congress to their voting behavior, this study demonstrates how black interests emerge from descriptive representation, and importantly, how white interests are also reflected in black MCs behavior.

  • Dovi, Suzanne L. “Preferable Descriptive Representatives: Will Just Any Woman, Black, or Latino Do?” American Political Science Review 96 (2002): 745–754.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055402000412

    Following Mansbridge, the argument is presented for the conditional benefits of descriptive representation, specifically that those theoretical benefits arise when descriptive representatives hold shared experiences. It subsequently spurred more detailed empirical analyses of the effect of descriptive representation.

  • Griffin, John D., and Brian P. Newman. Minority Report: Evaluating Political Equality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226308692.001.0001

    This important study advances the previous research, which assumes that black and/or Latino constituencies hold monolithic policy positions. Creating estimates for black and Latino mass opinion by state and district, the findings reveal that blacks and Latinos are generally better served by co-ethnic/racial descriptive representatives, and in particular, on policies most important to those groups.

  • Lublin, David I. The Paradox of Representation: Racial Gerrymandering and Minority Interests in Congress. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

    Takes on the key question of whether the creation of majority-minority districts, and the subsequent election of minority members of Congress, leads to more substantive representation of minority interests. The findings suggest that while black and Latino legislators are more liberal than white counterparts, the creation of overwhelmingly black districts dilutes black substantive representation in Congress.

  • Mansbridge, Jane. “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes.’” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657.

    DOI: 10.2307/2647821

    Moving beyond the simple assumption that descriptive representation matters, this article presents a set of theoretical conditions, high levels of inter-group mistrust, un-crystalized interests, and historic subordination, under which descriptive representation of women and racial minorities is most relevant.

  • Pitkin, Hanna F. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

    Pitkin, while not explicitly examining descriptive representation in the United States, provides the basic framework for delineating descriptive versus substantive and symbolic representation and lays out the philosophical bases for studies of descriptive representation.

  • Swain, Carol M. Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    Relying primarily on qualitative interviews, Swain provides the general counter-argument to the notion that substantive policy and representational behaviors differ across types of descriptive representatives.

  • Tate, Katherine. “Black Opinion on the Legitimacy of Racial Redistricting and Minority-Majority Districts.” American Political Science Review 97 (2003): 45–56.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055403000510

    Focusing on both the behavior of black members of Congress, as well as the constituencies’ views of black representatives, this study provides three main findings: that while black MCs do not differ in levels of substantive representation from white counterparts (from bill sponsorship to roll-call voting), black MCs are regarded more favorably by their black constituents, and black MCs tend to be more liberal than their constituencies.

  • Whitby, Kenny J. The Color of Representation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.14985

    One of the first broad quantitative studies of black representation in the US Congress that demonstrates the distinct nature of the voting behavior of black representatives as well as the trade-offs involved in the process of the creation of majority-minority districts.

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