The Attitudinal Structure of African American Women Party Activists: The Impact of Race, Gender, and Religion

Article excerpt

Using data on grassroots party activists in the South, we explore the attitudinal structure of Democratic activists. Because of their socialization experiences with both racial and gender discrimination, we hypothesize that African American women will have a unique attitudinal structure regarding racial and gender issues when compared to other activist subgroups. Our results indicate the importance of race, gender, and the black church for understanding the structure of African American women's political attitudes. Unlike whites or black men, African American women locate issues of race and gender on a single dimension; whether abortion attitudes fit on that dimension depends on the religious involvement of these activists.

Political parties in the United States are characteristically permeable, allowing new elites to enter into party activity (Baer and Bositis 1988). Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, African Americans have had the opportunity to take advantage of this permeability and as a result have dramatically changed the Democratic party in the South. For example, the number of African American elected officials in the South grew from less than 100 to nearly 5,000 between 1965 and 1990 and to more than 6,000 ten years later (Darling 1998: 157; Bositis 2002). The vast majority of these officeholders are Democrats. The black electorate overwhelmingly supports the Democratic party and its candidates, reshaping the southern wing of the party from a conservative past to a present that more closely resembles the rest of the nation.

In earlier research, we examined the impact of black mobilization on Democratic party organizations in the South (Clawson and Clark 1998). We found, not surprisingly, that the mobilization of blacks into party activity moved the Democrats in a liberal direction, especially on racial issues. Women activists, too, are distinctive on issues directly affecting women. The African American women activists at the nexus of these two patterns are especially distinct in their attitudes and in their impact on the Democratic party (Clawson and Clark 1998).

In this article, we explore further the distinctiveness of black female activists within the Democratic party in the South. Understanding the political behavior of black women requires an appreciation of their unique status within the political system. Black women occupy a space at the intersection of race and gender, yet often that space is ignored or subsumed by the interests of black men or white women. Too often, empirical political scientists have treated race and gender as if they are mutually exclusive without considering the multiplicative effects of those categories.1

Therefore, we focus on black women party activists as a unique social grouping. We argue that the structure of their policy attitudes emerges from their lived experiences with racism and sexism.2 Specifically, we use confirmatory factor analysis to demonstrate that black female activists differ from other race and gender groupings in the organization of their policy attitudes. We maintain that black female activists were shaped by three important factors: the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the black church. Each of these forces must be considered in order to appreciate the role of black women activists as agents of party change.

POLITICAL PARTIES, SOCIAL FORCES, AND AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN

In contrast to their counterparts in other democracies, political parties in the United States are characterized by their high levels of adaptability and permeability. Reichley (1992) argues that the specific policy views of the parties change with considerable frequency as new issues arise in the public consciousness. Aside from platforms, parties reinvent themselves as ambitious politicians attempt to address the problems inherent in a representative democracy (Aldrich 1995). As the political system evolves, so too do the parties adapt to meet new challenges and provide structure for the political system. …