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. The undemocratic role of big money is especially exclusionary 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 rest 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.
The pathway to a fairer country is through a stronger democracy. A key to promoting economic mobility and racial justice for people of color is to give these communities more say over the decisions that affect their daily lives.
To accomplish this we need to both curb the influence of the wealthy, white “donor class” and amplify the voices of all Americans, including people of color, so that elected officials will listen to and work for all of their constituents, not just a privileged few. This requires reclaiming our Constitution from a runaway Supreme Court and matching small political contributions with public funds.
Restoring Our Constitution
In cases such as Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. FEC, and McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court has stepped in to dismantle democratically-enacted policies intended to prevent wealthy interests from translating economic might directly into political power.
- We can transform the Supreme Court’s approach to money in politics so the Court overturns its own bad decisions—just like the justices have reversed course on New Deal economic protections, racial segregation, LGBT rights, and more. We can accomplish this by developing and promoting robust interpretive frameworks that go beyond fighting corruption as compelling values that our Constitution protects; mobilizing allies across the political spectrum and within the legal community to support these ideas; ensuring that newly appointed justices share the public’s common-sense understanding of the role that money should play in our electoral system; passing cutting-edge laws at the state and local levels; and fighting back in the courts to establish an enduring interpretation of the Constitution that empowers the people to pass sensible limits on the use of big money.
- We can amend the Constitution to clarify that the people have the power to rein in the influence of big money.
Matching Small Contributions with Public Funds
The best way to encourage candidates to listen to constituents and help people of color have their voices heard in the political process is to match small contributions with public funds.
- Matching small contributions six-to-one or more and providing a voucher or tax credit to small donors can encourage millions of Americans to participate through $25 or $50 contributions that actually matter, providing the incentive for candidates to reach out to—and listen to—average voters, not just big donors.
- Studies of New York City’s matching system and similar grant-based systems in Arizona and Connecticut have shown that such programs can significantly increase the diversity of the donor base and help more candidates of color run for office and win elections.
- The Government By the People Act (H.R.20) and the Fair Elections Now Act (S.2023) are leading proposals to bring a small donor matching system to the federal level.
Fundamental change is always difficult to achieve, but momentum is growing for several reasons. The silver lining of the Supreme Court’s extreme interventions on money in politics has been unprecedented public awareness and concern. A growing list of civil rights, environmental, workers’ rights and other progressive organizations are coming together to embrace the insight that enacting transformative change around their first priority issues requires strengthening our democracy and reducing the role of big money. Public support for common sense solutions remains exceptionally strong across party and ideological lines. There have been important recent victories, with the prospects for bigger wins on the horizon. Together, these factors provide real cause for optimism in the face of a daunting problem.
Case Studies on Money in Politics and Racial Equity
Three case studies demonstrate how big money thwarts progress on racial equity; a fourth shows how a fairer system for electing public officials can lead to policies that better serve our communities; and a fifth tells the story of how a community-based organization is building the power of people of color to fight back. And, the stories illustrate the two basic ways race interacts with our big money system. The first two case studies examine how the power of big money combined with systemic racism has fueled two of the most destructive policies targeted toward people of color: the prison industrial complex and predatory mortgage lending. The third and fourth case studies examine two ostensibly race-neutral policies—the minimum wage and paid sick days—that have disproportionate impact on the lives of people of color, who are over-represented among the working class.
- Private Prisons and Incarceration. Incarceration in the U.S. has increased by 500 percent over the past three decades, with people of color vastly over-represented in our nation’s prisons and jails. This is the result of policies that have put more people in jail for longer sentences despite dropping crime rates, policies boosting the bottom line of the growing private prison industry.
- The Subprime Lending Crisis. Because of rampant discriminatory lending practices, the subprime-lending crisis hit people of color especially hard. Banks and other mortgage lenders used millions of dollars of political contributions and lobbying to weaken and circumvent consumer-friendly regulations, resulting in the largest loss of wealth in communities of color in American history.
- The Minimum Wage. The federal minimum wage has remained stagnant, losing real value over the past several decades. Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would lift more than 3.5 million workers of color out of poverty, but Congress has instead prioritized policies favored by the wealthy.
- Paid Sick Leave. The U.S. is one of the only prosperous democracies that does not guarantee even minimal paid sick leave to all employees, which would improve public health and disproportionately benefit Latino workers. A paid sick leave proposal was bottled up in the Connecticut legislature until the state passed a “fair elections” system that enabled candidates to run for office without depending upon wealthy donors and special interests. Following this change, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to guarantee paid sick leave.
- Voting Rights in Minnesota. TakeAction Minnesota recently demonstrated how organizing in communities of color can help defeat restrictions on the freedom to vote. Now, as they turn to expanding the franchise for formerly incarcerated people, TakeAction and its allies are building power for a multi-year strategy that connects voting rights and money in politics, breaking down silos and continuing to build the movement for a fairer and more inclusive democracy.
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