Race, Ethnicity & Political Power Research Paper Starter

Race, Ethnicity & Political Power

(Research Starters)

In the roughly century and a half since the end of slavery, minority participation in representative politics has made significant advancements. Due in large measure to the civil rights struggles of various groups, both legislative and judicial remedies have made it feasible for members of racial and ethnic minority groups to be elected to political office. The single most significant piece of legislation that ensured expanded political participation was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While this legislation has indeed helped numerous minorities to run successful campaigns for public office, there is debate over whether this has helped to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of minority groups.

Keywords Allen v State Board of Elections; Cooptation; Gerrymandering; Hunt v Cromartie:; Particularistic Identity Concept; Reconstruction; Redistricting; Shaw v Reno:; Universalist Identity Concept; Voting Rights Act of 1965



During Reconstruction, the lieutenant governor of Louisiana was a black man. Blacks held a significant number of seats in the state legislatures of many of the Southern states, and a few were elected to Congress. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American elected president of the United States; however, as of 2013, Duval Patrick of Massachusetts was the lone black governor, and only two out of fifty senators and thirty-nine out of 435 members of the House of Representatives were black. Despite Obama’s election, African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities are still not elected to public office in numbers that reflect their proportion of the population. However, legislative changes and judicial rulings have had an impact on the realistic chances that a person might, regardless of race or ethnic origins, hold office or in some meaningful way participate in the American political system.

The Right to Vote

The ability of a racially or ethnically distinct group to vote is a necessary precursor to political office holding. Although the right to vote is a seen as a fundamental aspect of the American system of government, it is not a right explicitly stated in the Constitution. The drafters of the Constitution left the matter of the franchise to the states; such was the case until the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870, specifically prohibiting states from denying the right to vote to any man on account of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" Still, this was a prohibition, not an "affirmative right to vote" (Hall, 2005, p. 1053). The decades following ratification of this amendment saw countless strategies designed to deny people of color the right to vote, without explicitly prohibiting them from doing so. Examples include the creation of a poll tax, 'grandfather' clauses, literacy tests, and outright voter intimidation. It was not until the 1960s that the Supreme Court enforced the spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment in any meaningful way.

Once the right to vote was established, it became necessary to create a playing field where all candidates could compete. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and subsequent to that, redrawn congressional district lines, have helped to ensure a greater level of participation. A look at the demographics of the United States demonstrates why it is important to allow every group to have a voice in shaping policy. Nonetheless, it is not a given that participation by members of one's own ethnic or racial group will ensure a better outcome for that group.


In his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. responded to the suggestion that blacks were asking for too much too soon by saying that three hundred years is a long time to wait . For more than half the time that Europeans and their descendants have been in the Americas, the American legal system permitted slavery. At the end of the Civil War, new methods of control ensured that the descendants of those slaves would be kept out of the political mainstream. The "Redeemers," members of the Democratic Party who believed they were redeeming the honor of the South by reclaiming white control and discouraging black political participation, came to power in the 1870s and 1880s. With this, political participation for blacks in the South, where upwards of 95 percent of them lived, became almost nonexistent. It was not until the Populist movement later in the 1880s and into the 1890s that blacks found any political outlet in the South. Even within the People's Party, willingness to accept blacks as equal members of the party and especially as members qualified to hold office was deeply controversial and was ultimately used as a tool to split the party, thus ending that one avenue for blacks to have a political voice at the end of the nineteenth century (Ayers, 1992).

The balance of political power between Native Americans and the U.S. government has also been a constantly evolving one. Originally, the U.S. government dealt with the tribes as "domestic sovereign nations" and made treaties with them as between two governing bodies. In 1871, the U.S. made a unilateral decision to end the era of treaties, thus ending any pretense of the tribes as sovereign entities with independent political power. The Dawes Act of 1887 further undermined the power of tribal government, creating a relationship between the individual Indian and the U.S. government. Throughout the twentieth century, policy has shifted to give tribal governments more avenues to pursue legal claims to land and water rights. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 returned some sovereignty to the tribes (Brinkley, 1997). This shift has caused a sense that the potential exists for the tribes to truly force change that might be beneficial to their interests (Lacy, 1985). Additionally, the American Indian Movement (AIM), a civil rights organization that grew out of the 1960s protest era, also served as a perceived threat, one that could awaken and articulate long-standing Indian grievances.


Lacy uses the term "co-optation" to explain a shift in the balance of power between the U.S. government and Native American tribes. He argues that co-optation "occurs if, in a system of power, the power holder intentionally extends some form of political participation to actors who pose a threat" (1985, p. 83). One way the threat has been manifested in tribal relationships is their growing ability to use the courts to sue for land and water rights. Even the potential of a suit can be perceived as a threat. As the perception of threat increases, the option of co-optation becomes more viable. The goal is to diffuse resistance; the process is democratic only if the participation offered is "genuinely oriented to the interests of the people" (1985, p. 86). Deeply connected to this concept is the notion of fair play that is embedded in the American self-concept. As Lacy explains, Indians have something akin to colonial status in their own land. Bringing the tribes into the political arena can blunt this realization (1985, p. 90). The Indian Gaming Act of 1988 can be seen as an example of co-optation. As the political clout of the tribes increased, they were able to bring pressure to pass federal legislation acknowledging their right to run gaming operations on, and in some cases off, their reservations. The vast sums that some of these operations have generated have in turn been used to increase political participation by Native Americans (Gudzune, 2007).

Co-optation is a concept that can easily be applied to other groups. At the dawn of the Civil Rights Era, it became obvious to some players that a realignment of political power was a far better choice than revolution. Drawing blacks into the political arena might be one way to avoid catastrophic clashes that the country was witnessing in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. The desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 provides an interesting example of how badly policy can go wrong when one race is excluded. It was the failure to allow any input by members of the black community that helped to exacerbate an already very difficult situation. Little Rock was governed by a small group of businessmen who preferred to exercise power behind the scenes, creating the illusion that their political and economic interests did not intersect. A controversial issue like desegregation left them unable to create policy capable of dealing with the situation at hand. Further complicating the picture was a Supreme Court increasingly willing to accommodate legal complaints from the African American community (Anderson, 2004).

The Voting Rights Act

Black political power in Arkansas was severely limited in 1957. While technically able to vote, their presence in the voting booth was limited by both a poll tax and by intimidation. Thus, they had very little leverage in a dispute in which their well-being was a central issue. Congressman Brook Hayes played a critical role mediating between President Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Orval Faubus, but he never consulted with any blacks, saying, "The political thinking of the black community was not as vital at that time as it later became, of course, because it was not a matter of political weight or thinking" (as cited in Anderson, 2004, p. 607). Black voters had very limited leverage in school board elections, only to choose between hardcore segregations and reluctant integrationists.

The Voting Rights Act grew out of the civic uproar that resulted from images of sheer brutality in the deep South, directed against peaceful protesters. First signed into law in 1965, it was updated in 1970, 1975, and 1982. It banned practices such as literacy tests, prohibited states from diluting minority votes, and allowed the federal government to intervene in states with a history of discriminatory practice. Originally, the law targeted only blacks, but by 1975, the scope was expanded to protect...

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