Explaining African-American political trust: examining psychological involvement, policy satisfaction, and reference group effects.

Author:Mangum, Maruice


Compared with White Americans, African Americans exhibit lower levels of trust in government. However, there is a dearth of research that seeks to explain that group's level of political trust. Employing data taken from the 1996 National Black Election Study, this research examines three explanations to test how psychological involvement, policy satisfaction, and reference group influence political trust among African Americans. The results show support for each of the models as important factors in explaining African Americans' trust in government.

Political trust is defined in the literature as a summary of both negative and positive evaluations of the government in Washington, D.C. (1) It reflects the perception of how well the federal government is performing based upon expectations, which involves, to some degree, trust in public officials who serve in government, as well as both the system and process of government. One must be careful to understand the concept of political trust as a more narrow term, however, and not conflate it with other terms. Political trust is mainly concerned with expectations and their relationship to the outcomes of government's actions. Oftentimes, when speaking more specifically about trust in certain public officials, congressional or presidential approval ratings would be a more suitable measurement of that trust. If the focus is on the system or process of government, then system or process support would be a more appropriate measure of trust. Lastly, political trust does not refer to trust in political parties, for that would be subsumed by party identification.

Most research suggests that political trust is composed primarily of evaluations of public officials, political institutions, and satisfaction with public policies. (2) The conventional wisdom concerning political trust is that as conditions improve for the nation, trust in government increases. Conversely, as Arthur Miller, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Iowa, argues, low levels of trust indicate dissatisfaction with the political system. (3) Jack Citrin, a professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley, adds that low levels of political trust are the result of poor evaluations the public assigns incumbents and their policies. (4)

Americans have become more distrusting of government since the 1970s. (5) African Americans trust government less than whites, which can best be explained by the history of racism and discrimination in the United States. The American South, the home of Jim Crow laws and numerous efforts to subvert the African-American vote, has been a bastion of racial hatred toward African Americans. (6) Moreover, racial segregation remains prevalent in the country, and many bemoan the educational, economic, social, and justice systems as being anti-African American. (7)

Extant scholarship on political trust confirms that African Americans have less of it than whites. (8) However, these studies offer limited theoretical justifications for African Americans' distrust of government beyond speculating, typically without empirical evidence, that it is rooted in their experiences with racial discrimination. While plausible, this explanation does not take into account other factors that may explain lower levels of political trust among African Americans. This study offers several tests of models in an effort to explain political trust among African Americans. In doing so, it attempts to fill a gap in the literature. Other works have addressed why African Americans do not trust government, but without systematic analyses. By and large, they ignore African Americans or conclude the opposite of their findings on political trust among White Americans. Research on African-Americans' political trust chiefly promotes the roles of descriptive representation (shared social characteristics) rather than actual living experience, and substantive representation (shared policy interests) instead of policy and governmental evaluations in affecting African-Americans' political trust. (9) Therefore, testing other explanations is warranted. Regardless of the fact that African Americans are no longer members of the largest racial minority group in the United States, they remain the most cohesive voting bloc in American politics. (10) Thus, learning what drives their level of political trust merits investigation.

Normatively, by studying explanations of political trust among African Americans, political science gains further insight into understanding trust among Americans who possess unique historical and political experiences. Trust in government is an important element for any democracy. (11) For democracy's sake, it behooves political scientists to disentangle attitudes that potentially obstruct some Americans' opportunity to participate in the democratic process, and, more pertinently, that prevent the political system from functioning properly. Political trust affects both obedience to law (12) and support for public policies. (13)

More fitting for the purpose of this study, James Avery, an associate professor of political science at Richard Stockton College, examines the relationship between political trust among African Americans and their participation in politics. He suggests that there are more meaningful and fundamental factors that shape political trust among African Americans. Political trust, he contends, has different effects on African-Americans' political participation than it does on whites. Consequently, African Americans participate in the political process due to different stimuli. (14) The same reasoning guides this study, which posits that political trust among African Americans should be shaped by factors that are based primarily on their historical experiences, racial consciousness, and social engagement in American society.

This study provides explanations of political trust among African Americans utilizing data taken from the 1996 National Black Election Study in an effort to develop three explanatory models. (15) First, the Psychological Involvement Model captures the effects of individual efficacy, group efficacy, political ideology, and party identification. One's perception of being deprived of political efficacy may undermine his/her trust in government. If one's reluctance to participate in the political process when he/she feels ineffective is logical, then it is equally plausible that this individual will distrust that process because he/ she believes that they are unable to effect change because they find government unresponsive to their concerns. In addition, group efficacy is examined given political scientist Maruice Mangum's finding that African Americans are more inclined to participate in politics due to group, rather than individual, efficacy. (16) Generally speaking, it is expected that liberal African Americans would trust the government in Washington, D.C. more than their conservative counterparts because of the former group's greater desire for governmental activism to remedy social ills. It is also anticipated that African-American Democrats should demonstrate greater trust in the federal government than African-American Republicans because the Democratic Party has used government more than the Republican Party to benefit African Americans in recent years. Here, an important distinction is made between the federal government and the state government. Southern state governments, under the guise of states' rights, have enacted laws to restrict the freedoms and liberties of racial minorities (i.e., Jim Crow laws). The federal government has protected the rights of those minorities against these unconstitutional policies adopted by state governments (e.g., the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Therefore, it is logical to presume that liberal African Americans and African-American Democrats will trust the federal government more than African Americans affiliated with the Republican Party.

Second, the Policy Satisfaction Model seeks to determine whether trust in government among African Americans might be influenced by their level of policy satisfaction. Given the importance of the issue of race to African Americans, (17) policy satisfaction regarding racial progress is tested. Rather than simply focus on generic perceptions of how well the government is doing to improve the economic well-being of the nation, this study explores matters of greater concern to African Americans, namely, government's performance on enacting and enforcing measures concerning race.

Third, the Reference Group Model is constructed to explain whether or not the lack of descriptive representation affects political trust among African Americans. Because government is composed of individuals and groups who are not African American, descriptive representation is lacking. To account for the affinity African Americans have demonstrated toward the racial makeup of individuals and groups in government, this study explores the level of affection African Americans show toward whites, Democrats, and Republicans. Additionally, the desire, or lack thereof, to integrate with others may influence African American trust in government. Again, the experiences of African Americans are hypothesized to have effects on their level of political trust. Inasmuch as descriptive representation matters, it might have a reverse effect too. Descriptive representation influences political trust positively. African Americans who are represented by fellow African Americans are likely to exhibit more political trust than those who are represented descriptively. However, given the lack of descriptive representation afforded most African Americans, it is not likely that descriptive representation can be the driving force that determines political trust. In its stead, a lack of descriptive representation is the norm and should be...

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