Explaining African-American Political Trust: Examining Psychological Involvement, Policy Satisfaction, and Reference Group Effects

Article excerpt

Introduction

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. …

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