Latest Evidence of America's Institutional Racism: Almost All Political Donors Are White

(Editor's note: What follows is the executive summary of a new report by Demos documenting the racial bias in America's campaign finance system.)


One-hundred and fifty years after the Reconstruction Amendments and more than a generation after the civil rights revolution, achieving true racial equity remains a central challenge of our time.

Both structural barriers and racially biased policies contribute to a racial wealth and income gap that is higher today than at any point since the Federal Reserve began tracking it 30 years ago. And the drive for racial equity in America faces a serious headwind: the role of private wealth and big business in our political system. While the undemocratic role of big money hurts us all, its consequences are particularly dire for people of color, who are severely underrepresented in the “donor class” whose large contributions fuel campaigns and therefore set the agendas in Washington and state capitals across the country. 

Race intersects with our big money system in two important ways. First, because donor and corporate interests often diverge significantly from those of working families on economic policies such as the minimum wage and paid sick leave, people of color are disproportionately harmed because a larger percentage are poor or working class. Second, and more profound, our nation’s legacy of racism and persistently racialized politics depresses the political power of people of color, creating opportunities for exploitation and targeting—exemplified by the subprime lending crisis, mass incarceration, and voter suppression laws.

The dominance of big money in our politics makes it far harder for people of color to exert political power and effectively advocate for their interests as both wealth and power are consolidated by a small, very white, share of the population.

Summarized below are this study’s findings on (1) the racial bias inherent in our big-money political system; (2) our policy recommendations on how to make government more responsive to all people; and (3) five case studies detailing the real-world impact of money in politics on people of color and examples of how to shift power from wealthy interests to all voters.

The Racial Bias Inherent in Our Big-Money Political System

Recent research has demonstrated that a) the rich have different policy preferences than the general public; and b) the government is sharply more responsive to the preferences of the wealthy than to those of the average voter.

The economic bias in our political system creates and sustains similar racial bias because the donor class as a whole and campaign contributors specifically are overwhelmingly white; and because the policy preferences of people of color are much more similar to those of the general public than to those of the rich.

• The top 10 percent of wealth holders are more than 90 percent white, whereas the rest of the country is less than 70 percent white.

• A significant majority of campaign money at the federal and state levels comes from a small number of elite donors (less than 1 percent of the population) making large contributions (of $1,000 or more).

• More than 90 percent of $200+ federal contributions in the 2012 election cycle came from majority white neighborhoods.

• When asked whether it’s more important to create jobs or hold down the deficit, people of color agree with lower-income Americans that creating jobs is the clear priority, whereas the wealthy have the opposite view.

• Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win. Ultimately, people of color are not adequately represented by elected officials.

• A recent study of black candidate success concluded that “the underrepresentation of blacks is driven by constraints on their entry onto the ballot” and that the level of resources in the black community is “an important factor for shaping the size of the black candidate pool.”

• Candidates of color raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in 2006 state legislative races, and 64 percent less in the South.

• Latino candidates for state House raised less money than non-Latinos in 67 percent of the states where Latinos ran in the 2004 election cycle.

• In a typical election cycle, 90 percent or more of the candidates who raise the most money win their races.

• Ninety percent of our elected leaders are white, despite the fact that people of color are 37 percent of the U.S. population.

• Latinos and Asians are more than 22 percent of the population, but hold fewer than 2 percent of the elected positions nationwide.

• In 2009, just 9 percent of all state legislators were African American and 3 percent Latino, compared with 13.5 percent and 15.4 percent of the total population, respectively.

• In a 2011 study, researchers found that white state legislators of both major political parties were less likely to reply to letters received from assumed constituents with apparently African American names (like “DeShawn Jackson”).

• Record corporate political spending on election campaigns and lobbying has amplified the political exclusion of people of color.

• The policy outcomes resulting from this big-money campaign finance system fail to address the needs of people of color, and in some cases actively restrict progress on racial equity in America.

(Read the rest of the report by Demos, Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy).

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