Political Science Now

Race and Class Inequality in Local Politics

Chapter 11: Race and Class Inequality in Local Politics

Zoltan L. Hajnal, University of California, San Diego
Jessica L. Trounstine, University of California, Merced

“Overall, only 47% of black voters ultimately support the winning candidate. Latino and Asian American voters are in the middle of the range.”

This chapter assesses the effect of race and class divisions on the urban political arena in the United States. It presents an array of data from our previous research outlining the roles that race and class play in shaping both individual political choice and overall political representation in urban politics. We found that both factors significantly shape political behavior and outcomes but that race is the primary driver of urban politics across most contexts. The centrality of race and, to a lesser extent, class in shaping the vote has widespread consequences for representation at the local level. Across an array of different indicators, racial and ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged groups are poorly represented in the local arena. Minorities are more apt than whites to end up on the losing side of the vote, they are grossly underrepresented in elected offices, and—ultimately—they are less satisfied with city government than whites. Local democracy, by almost all accounts, is more likely to represent the interests of whites and the wealthy than those of minorities and the poor. There are, however, potential solutions. Turnout is a linchpin for several forms of minority achievement. Expanded turnout is associated with more minorities in office and more minority-friendly policies—which, in turn, are linked with greater minority satisfaction with local government. In addition to turnout, this chapter highlights a range of other documented solutions, including local policy change and institutional reform.