Published on November 12th, 20140
Interview with Prof. Rima Wilkes: Black Republicans & Government
Part of what I think is interesting is how Black Republican leaders have become synonymous with Black Republicans in general (at least this is my impression of the media coverage in general). Greater attention needs to be on who is the average Black Republican. – Prof. Rima Wilkes
Republicans, despite what they say, really like government more than Democrats.
That’s the headline many took away from a new study in the journal Social Science Research.
But the headline could’ve as easily been: “Black Democrats the least trusting of government,” because, in fact, that’s what the study — conducted by Canadian sociologist Rima Wilkes — found. “Black Republicans, White Democrats and White Republicans all have significantly higher levels of trust than Black Democrats, controlling for other factors,” Wilkes’s study concludes.
The study has attracted some attention lately, including from The Washington Post. That article—typical of American political journalism—casts black Republicans as at odds with Wilkes’s thesis, by quoting black Republicans criticizing government to conclude, “…not every black Republican commentator would agree with [Wilkes’s] assessment.” (Quite, fittingly, Wilkes plans to next study trust in the media, among other institutions).
But it would be more accurate to say that the professor’s study is less about government, in the sense of trusting government programs and more about trust in the American political system. We see this in the questions the study asked, such as whether respondents have “trust in the federal government to do what is right.” This reflects buy-in to the means-ends structure of American democracy, a belief that the American system is fundamentally well-structured, an endorsement of the idea of America as a place of fair play, and a just rewards system.
When cast this way, it’s no surprise that black Republicans would rate high on this measure. Indeed this is exactly what Wilkes found, writing, “It is likely that in order to identify as Black Republican [one] probably requires an unusual confidence in the political system and its fairness irrespective of who is in charge.” It’s about whether groups feel the system has enough legitimacy that it regularly produces just outcomes; and whether people feel the system is responsive to people like them. And, like Robert Merton’s deviance theory, the trust Wilkes is studying has to do with whether people feel just outcomes can be achieved within the system or whether systems are so flawed, citizens must go outside the system to achieve remedies.
In this, most commentary missed the real point of Wilkes’s study. Wilkes’s findings about black Democrats are much more striking than her findings about black Republicans. Consider First Lady Obama’s infamous 2008 candid admission, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.” Consider, too, Attorney General Holder this April to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, “What Attorney General has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What President has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?” Both statements reflect the sentiment that American systems are often biased by race.
This is explained by Wilkes’s observation that a consistent finding of social science literature is, “For [most] Black Americans, trust is reflective of a deep malaise with the political system.” As a consequence, Wilkes proposes a quite novel idea, that “In contrast to White Americans whose discontent is manifest through partisan withdrawal, Black Americans’ system discontent occurs via partisan concentration.” That is African-American heavy concentration in the Democratic Party is a means of expressing discontent with the overall political system.
In interview with HHR, Wilkes called this, “the extreme political concentration to the Democratic Party for Black Americans.” She added, “The fact that politics is so tied to skin color is hugely problematic.” And it diminishes the sense in which black Americans have meaningful “political choice” in American elections.
This is an outgrowth of Wilkes’s career research – studying “collective action” of ethnic minority groups, commentating on protests by disaffected groups, and the backdrop to this study—generalized trust (surveys which ask, “would you say that in general most people can be trusted” “most people try to be fair”), where research has long found a gap between the races.
In an interview with HHR over the phone Friday, Wilkes says she plans to next study links between race, partisanship and trust in other institutions—medical/science field, the media, the education system, and financial system.
With approval ratings for both Congress and the president at all-time lows, there can surely be no better time to study the determinants and expressions of trust in our political system.
EDITED INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:
HHR: For starters, what was the impetus for this study? What about the question of racial differences in voter trust interested you?
RW: There is a long-standing finding that when it comes to what we call “generalized trust” in others – they ask questions such as “would you say that in general most people can be trusted” “most people try to be fair” “most people try to be helpful” that Black Americans are less trusting than White Americans. I did a study that looked at these trends over time and across birth cohorts. One argument is that it is because people think “most people” really means White people – my argument was that it was important to not simply see Black trust as about race but also White trust as about race and racial privilege. Then I just wondered how this might play out for political trust. Much to my surprise I did not see the same pattern – in fact in some years Black Americans were more trusting than White Americans and I just wanted to do some digging and wondered about the role of partisanship. I certainly did not expect Black Republicans, though a small group, to have the highest level of political trust of any group.
HHR: You write, “In contrast to White Americans whose discontent is manifest through partisan withdrawal, Black Americans’ system discontent occurs via partisan concentration.” Am I reading this correctly that you’re theorizing black Americans’ heavily concentrating in the Democratic Party is a means by which Black Americans’ express their discontent with the overall American political system?
RW: Yes I’m theorizing here – the existing literature says that political trust means something different for Black Americans than it does for White Americans. Other scholars conclude this on the grounds that the causes of political trust are different across groups. My study built on this work by being the first to include data from so many different years. This paper shows that essentially the causes of political trust are the same for both groups. But I started really thinking about the extreme political concentration to the Democratic Party for Black Americans. Although there are historical/contemporary reasons why this is the case, the fact that politics is so tied to skin color, is hugely problematic – it should be that there is the same diversity or pluralism for Black Americans as for White or other Americans.
I think within US politics it has become normalized for Black Americans to be linked to the Democratic Party but then when you start thinking about this it is much more problematic in terms of thinking about political choice.
HHR: In your “Conclusion,” you write black Republican trust is higher when a Democrat is in office? Is my vision failing me or did I read that correctly? LOL.
RW: It did average out that way. I would think that this is because to identify as a Republican when one is also Black is also to take on a particular challenge that none of the other groups (Black Democrat, White Democrat, White Republican) have to take on. Black Republicans have to justify themselves in a way that the other groups do not.
HHR: Do you think perhaps a) income and b) views about how well the economy is doing/how well individuals feel they’re doing in it are a stronger correlate of trust in the political system than political party?
RW: The results show that views about the economy do have an effect on trust but I know from a previous study that I did that the changes in trust are not about changes to the economy they are about changes in the Presidency although this may reflect the economy – but it manifests itself via other measures.
HHR: In other words, if you segment black voters by income level and/or response to the “economy works well for me” question — do you think that even Black Democrats who are high income or say the economy is doing well for them would have high political trust? So that the strongest predictor of trust might be income and the econ. question rather than political party?
RW: Actually it is neither. Presidential thermometer is the best predictor of political trust (I know this from another study I did).
HHR: That same Footnote 22 also finds Black Rs “somewhat younger.” Did that surprise you? Any hypotheses about why that is?
RW: This did not surprise me – not for any real reason but because I was more focused on income and education — but I did expect to find that Black Republicans had higher incomes than other groups. I did not see this. Part of what I think is interesting is how Black Republican leaders have become synonymous with Black Republicans in general (at least this is my impression of the media coverage in general). Greater attention needs to be on who is the average Black Republican – Condoleezza Rice is often held up as a “Black Republican” – but she is really not average on any definition!
*Note, too, in a phone interview I explored with Wilkes some emerging findings that “the extreme political concentration” in the Democratic Party she references may be waning for black Americans under 30. She seemed to disagree, noting her research indicates the number of African-Americans who identify with neither party, but as “Independent,” has held relatively stable over time from 1958 to 2012, indicating perhaps the black Millennial disaffection from the Democratic Party trend may be more myth than reality.
HHR: What questions for further/future research do you think this study points to?
RW: We need to learn more about Black Republicans. The study also really shows the polarization in terms of how people feel about individual Presidents. I think there should be more research on that as an outcome.
HHR: What do you think are the lessons — and subsequent questions you’ll pursue in this research — for voters? Policymakers? Is their popular conventional wisdom out there you see your research as a corrective for?
RW: One of the main contributions I hope is that a lot of the public opinion literature and polling talks about “Americans” This research really shows that when you are talking about “Americans” you are really talking about White Americans because they are numerically dominant and therefore any average really means White Americans. Similarly when you talk about Black Americans it really means Black Democrats at least in this context… The smaller groups and their views tend to get swamped by these larger groups.
My next project is looking at race, partisanship and institutional confidence. This includes science, medicine, education, the media and financial institutions.
About The Interviewer: Charles Badger is a Republican political strategist and speechwriter, currently working in New Jersey State government. @charlesbadger