Do Americans Prefer Co-Ethnic Representation? The Impact of Race on House Incumbent Evaluations

Standford Law Review

Stephen Ansolabehere, Bernard L. Fraga
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Theories of representation often assert that citizens prefer representatives who are of the same racial or ethnic background as themselves. Examining surveys of over 80,000 individuals, this Article quantifies the preference for coethnic representation among whites, blacks, and Hispanics. The large sample size provides sufficient statistical power to study constituents in districts with minority representatives, as well as those with white representatives. We find that individuals strongly prefer representatives who share their ethnic background, yet partisanship explains most of the preference for coethnic representation. Controlling for party, whites express a slight preference for white representation, but blacks and Hispanics express equal support for minority and white incumbents. The differential preference for white representation among white Democrats is explained by a bias associated with attitudes about race-related policy. These findings suggest that legal and political theories of race, especially regarding the Voting Rights Act, must be tied to voters’ policy and party preferences, not merely their racial identity