Do Minorities Do Better Under Democrats?

More than anyone realized.

President Bill Clinton accepts the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund National Equal Justice Award Dinner in New York City on Nov. 1, 2001.
President Bill Clinton accepts the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award at an NAACP Legal Defense Fund event in New York City on Nov. 1, 2001.

Photo by Gabe Palacio/ImageDirect/Getty Images

Minority outreach is still on the Republican agenda. The Republican National Committee has hired dozens of black and Latino field representatives, and Chairman Reince Priebus has made the rounds at churches and historically black colleges across the country. Conservatives continue to argue that Democrats have been bad for blacks, Latinos, and other minorities. “What we’re hearing from black voters and people within our community is that it’s the president’s economic policies that are hurting them the most,” said the RNC’s Orlando Watson in an interview last year.

Even if that is spin, there’s no doubt that minorities—and blacks in particular—have struggled in the current economy. At 11.6 percent, the unemployment rate for black Americans is staggeringly high, with little sign of declining, even for college graduates. Low-income blacks are increasingly segregated from the mainstream economy, and their middle-class counterparts are still reeling from the Great Recession and its calamitous effect on black housing wealth.

With all of that comes a question: If current conditions are so bad for black Americans, why haven’t they abandoned the Democrats? For some conservatives, the answer is that blacks suffer from a sort of false consciousness, in which they’ve forgotten the civil rights victories of the Republican Party. The crude version comes from figures like Herman Cain, who claims that blacks have been “brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.” On the other end are conservative writers, like Kevin D. Williamson, that see blacks as the helpless victims of cynical racial bribery. Here’s how he explained the deception in a 2012 feature for National Review:

Democrats who argue that the best policies for black Americans are those that are soft on crime and generous with welfare are engaged in much the same sort of cynical racial calculation President Johnson was practicing when he informed skeptical southern governors that his plan for the Great Society was “to have them niggers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years.”

Flawed analysis of Lyndon Johnson aside—who used white racial solidarity as a tool to circumvent Southern opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act—the problem with this argument is it denies agency to black voters, who become the objects of party strategy and not individuals with their own interests and priorities.

The right way to answer the question of African-American loyalty is to treat blacks as rational citizens voting in their self-interest. And while the sluggish economy of the Obama years may seem like a bad case for Democratic loyalty, that’s not true of Democratic administrations overall. According to a recent paper from Zoltan L. Hajnal and Jeremy D. Horowitz—both political scientists at the University of California–San Diego—there’s clear evidence that when the nation is governed by Democrats, black well-being “improves dramatically” across multiple dimensions.

Specifically, looking at data from 1948 to 2010, Hajnal and Horowitz found that “African Americans tend to experience substantial gains under Democratic presidents whereas they tend to incur significant losses or remain stagnant under Republicans.” On average, under Democratic presidents, blacks gained $895 in annual income, saw a 2.41 point drop in their poverty rate, and a 0.36 point drop in their unemployment rate. By contrast, under Republicans, blacks gained $142 a year, along with a 0.15 point increase in poverty and a 0.39 point increase in unemployment.

What’s more, this was true in relative terms as well. As they write, “[W]hether we look at the gap between blacks and whites or at the ratio of black to white outcomes, the patterns are essentially identical: Republican administrations were, on average, bad for African Americans and Democratic administrations were, on average, good for them, both in absolute and relative terms.”

The cumulative (i.e. year-after-year) differences are huge. Across 16 years of Democratic governance, the black poverty rate, for example, declined by nearly 40 points. Across 35 years of Republican governance, by contrast, it increased by 3 points. Indeed, during most years of Republican presidential leadership, black poverty grew and black unemployment increased.

Of course, this could all be a fluke—the statistical artifact of broad trends that go beyond presidential politics. It’s possible that Democrats had the good fortune of good economic times while Republicans governed during downturns and recessions. Or, alternatively, the findings could be affected by the influence of divided government and congressional action. As such, Hajnal and Horowitz ran another test that controlled for median income, inflation, changes in the economy, and control of Congress. In each case, the results were the same: “All else equal, black family incomes grew over $1,000 faster annually under Democratic leadership than they did under Republican presidents. Likewise, the black poverty rate declined 2.6 points faster under Democrats and the black unemployment rate fell almost one point faster.”

The only difference is under divided government. Black family income—and only black family income—was stagnant when Democratic presidents were coupled with Republican Congresses.

Hajnal and Horowitz looked at one other area, criminal justice, and there they found similar results; as with income or unemployment, black outcomes improve under Democrats while they worsen under Republicans. All arrest rates decline significantly faster under Democrats than Republicans, as does the racial gap in arrest rates.

Because the data is less comprehensive, it’s difficult to make a similar analysis for Asian-Americans and Latinos. Still, there’s enough information to give a general look at how both groups fare under different presidencies, and according to Hajnal and Horowitz, the pattern holds: Latino incomes grow and Latino poverty declines under Democrats while incomes shrink and poverty climbs under Republicans. The data for Asian-Americans points in a similar direction, with greater gains under the Democratic Party compared with the GOP. One area that is a bit of an open question is the status of whites. Minority gains don’t come at the expense of white Americans, but it’s not clear which party is better for their economic interests.

Now, none of this is an accusation of racism or racial favoritism. The only observation is this: Over the long term, Republicans are less beneficial to the economic status of minorities than Democrats, even after you control for external conditions. And, with a hugely redistributive policy like the Affordable Care Act on the ledger of the Obama administration, that will likely stay true.

Of the conclusions you can take from this research, I want to focus on two. First, for Republicans baffled by the seemingly sudden shift among Asian-American voters—who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—Hajnal and Horowitz provide a possible answer: In addition to anger and discontent with conservative rhetoric on immigration, Asian-Americans have just done better under Democrats and are voting accordingly.

Second, when it comes to analyzing black voters, conservatives need to stop treating them as irrational or stuck on some kind of “Democratic plantation.” Like any coherent group of citizens, black Americans have a strong sense of their individual and collective interests. And in their correct view, they do better under Democratic presidents, which contributes to their overwhelming support for Democratic politicians.

Put another way, if conservatives want to make inroads with black Americans and other minorities, they have to show them they’ll succeed under Republican governance and have to deliver when the opportunity comes.

I believe this is possible, or at least, that it can be. But—in a world where the GOP approach to blacks and immigrants is, respectively, voter ID and deportation—I’m not holding my breath.