While the national news media — and President Trump’s ire — has focused, in the main, on the huge marches in major cities like Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., there is an untold story happening in the heartland and suburbs of America, where the majority of African-Americans actually live. Although political inequality by race is widespread in our big cities, it is actually much worse in suburban and rural towns throughout America.
In research we have conducted over the past five years, we examined how well different racial and ethnic groups are represented by their local elected officials. Our study covers a random sample of more than 500 communities, from some of the largest American cities to towns of just a few hundred residents.
At every level, the story is largely the same: African-Americans typically receive worse representation on their city and town councils than whites do. This pattern holds even in communities where Black residents are a majority of the population.
The accompanying chart shows how white and Black Americans compare on the main measure of representation used in our research: the ideological distance between elected officials and community residents. In other words, we looked at the degree to which the overall preferences of groups of citizens diverge from those of the political leaders of the community. When this value is smaller, the group’s views are better represented by their local officials; when it is larger, representation is worse.
In large cities, white residents receive significantly better representation than African-Americans. On average, whites find themselves about five points closer to their local elected officials on issues compared with Black residents. This unequal representation is striking, as it even exists in many cities where whites are a distinct minority. For example, we studied 22 cities where people of color were a majority of the adult population, and in over half of them African-Americans endured worse representation than whites.
As inequitable as representation is in American cities, it is even more unequal in America’s suburbs and small towns. These are the very places where Americans believe that government is closest to the people.
In suburban communities, the inequality in representation that African-Americans face relative to whites is 32 percent larger than it is in the cities. And in small towns, the Black-white disparity in representation is 76 percent greater than in the cities. In 60 percent of the communities we sampled where whites were a minority, they still got better (and often much better) representation from local elected officials than Black residents.
Why do Black citizens receive worse representation in suburban and rural towns relative to cities? One of the most important insights from our research is that people of color are so disadvantaged in terms of influencing their local governments that they really manage to receive equitable political representation only when their political views are similar to those of the whites in their communities.
This is what political scientists call “coincidental representation,” a dynamic where a group has political power only by virtue of having common interests with another politically powerful group. In most places, it is the white residents who have the actual power to influence local government, so in communities where local officials represent the interests of African-Americans, this is often because of a close correspondence between the policy preferences of African-Americans and those of whites.
This insight helps explain the puzzle of why inequality in representation in cities — as bad as it is — is not nearly as bad as it is in smaller communities.
As the second accompanying chart, based on the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study survey of 60,000 Americans, shows, white Americans who live in big cities tend to be more liberal than whites who live in suburbs and small towns. Nearly 40 percent of whites living in cities identify as ideologically liberal, which is very similar to the percentage of African-Americans who do the same. This means that in many big cities a large fraction of white residents often see eye-to-eye with Black residents, at least in terms of how they identify ideologically.
By contrast, African-Americans who live in America’s suburbs and small towns are still quite liberal, but their white neighbors are much more conservative. In fact, 22 percent of small-town and rural whites identify as liberal while more than half identify as conservative. Because whites tend to hold real political power in suburban and rural communities, their conservative views mean that the chance Black interests will be represented is especially poor.
Far from being havens of consensus, the suburbs and especially small towns and rural areas are more ideologically polarized along racial lines than America’s major cities. African-Americans in suburban communities and small towns still want progressive policies and racial justice, but the whites living in these places are more likely to oppose such policies. It is no wonder that Mr. Trump has spent the last several weeks telling Americans that the Democrats “want to destroy our suburbs.”
When whites and African-Americans in a community disagree like this, our research shows, whites typically win out and get the kind of local representation they want. But while big cities like Minneapolis are rightly subjected to intense scrutiny when racial inequalities are unmasked to a wider public, there are many small towns across the nation where glaring gaps go unexamined and unaddressed.
Removing the obstacles to equitable representation of African-Americans in suburbia and small towns will be a huge undertaking. In our research we found that it would require a lot more than simple institutional tweaks to improve the situation. But an essential first step is recognizing that some of the biggest racial inequities in American democracy occur in small communities that are rarely the focus of conversations about racial justice in this country.
Brian F. Schaffner (@b_schaffner) is a political scientist at Tufts University. Jesse H. Rhodes and Raymond J. La Raja (@raylaraja) are political scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They are the authors of “Hometown Inequality: Race, Class, and Representation in American Local Politics.”
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