In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Black Political Participation and Representation

  • Introduction
  • How Black Political Engagement Shapes Elite Behavior

Political Science Black Political Participation and Representation
Jamil Scott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0374


Two of the most enduring threads in the study of Black politics are political participation and representation. Over time, scholars have grappled with the meaningfulness of representation by someone who shares the identity of the represented as well as which acts of participation are effective in achieving the political aims of the group. These bodies of work give scholars much to consider on why Black people engage in politics—from the mass public to the elite level—and push scholars to consider the implications of elites’ decision-making on behalf of the Black community. With the development of the literature, there have also been changes to the political landscape. Namely, the number of Black elected and appointed officials has continued to grow across levels of office, and the idea that large-scale protest was a product of the civil rights movement alone was laid to rest in the face of protests in support of Black Lives Matter. Yet, there continue to be instances in which Black people are prevented from engaging in politics. These literatures remain important reminders of what can be learned from the past and the ever-shifting political context raises new questions that direct where the literature should go next. The literature on Black political participation and political representation have certainly developed separately—the former focused on political behavior and the latter couched in the study of institutions—but what remains a throughline in the study of these topics is the relationship between the mass public and elites. That is, citizens engage in political participation to influence some change—whether that be the behavior of government officials, a policy outcome, or even who is in office altogether. When it comes to representation, there is an expectation that representatives are looking for cues from the public to legislate—whether that be a mandate from being elected to office or explicit messages of the political outcomes that the public wants to see. While these interactions between the mass public and elites are not exclusive to Black politics, what is unique is the political and social meaning that is attached to the relationship between the Black mass public and Black elites. In what follows, this work addresses the foundational concepts that undergird the study of representation and political participation, it turns to our understanding of the role of descriptive representation on legislative outcomes, and then to the implications of Black political participation. Next, this work reviews the literature on the psychological impact of descriptive representation on Black political participation, and how Black political engagement, in turn, shapes the behavior of elites.

Foundational Concepts

Before discussing Black representation and participation, it is important to define some foundational ideas that undergird the understanding of these concepts. The Black politics literature has been clear in its focus on understanding what representation lends to the best representation of Black interests as well as the unique factors that lead to Black political participation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.