Dealing with Diversity: Racial/ethnic Context and Social Policy Change

By Tolbert, Caroline J.; Hero, Rodney E. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Dealing with Diversity: Racial/ethnic Context and Social Policy Change


Tolbert, Caroline J., Hero, Rodney E., Political Research Quarterly


We propose and provide an explanation of voting behavior that argues it is a convergence of a social context (high racial/ethnic diversity) and institutional context (frequent use of direct democracy) that is associated with the adoption of public policies targeted at minority groups. We examine this argument in the state of California, the most racially diverse state in the nation, and one that has historically high usage of ballot initiatives. We analyze white voting for four social policy ballot initiatives that directly targeted minority groups over a twelve-year period. Using King's method of ecological inference (1997), the study demonstrates that white support for the initiatives varied systematically by racial and ethnic environments across policy issues and over time. The white votes was consistently higher in "bifurcated" environments, as might be expected given Key's (1949) research on a racial threat; but is was also notably higher in "homogeneous" contexts, even after accounting for economic conditions and partisanship. Social heterogeneity, particularly white ethnic diversity, is associated with lower support for the ballot propositions. The research expands the social diversity interpretation (Hero 1998) by taking into consideration institutional context, contributes to our understanding of minorities and direct democracy, and raises broader questions about procedural democracy and the appropriate scope of conflict for direct democracy elections in the U.S.

Direct democracy elections at the end of the twentieth century in the United States have had important implications for racial and ethnic minorities. During the 1980s and 1990s state ballot initiatives have been used to end affirmative action and bilingual education programs and to deny social services to illegal immigrants. We argue that the use of ballot initiatives directly affecting minority groups is in significant part a function of racial/ethnic context. While direct democracy has operated effectively for centuries in Switzerland, a small racially homogeneous country, it may lead to different policy outcomes in California or other racially diverse large American states.

We propose and provide an explanation of voting behavior that argues it is a convergence of a social context (high racial/ethnic diversity) and institutional context (frequent use of the initiative process) that is associated with the adoption of public policies targeted at minority groups. We examine this argument in the state of California, the most racially diverse state in the nation, and one that has historically high usage of the initiative process (Tolbert et al. 1998). In this context, white voters may use the initiative process to circumvent state legislatures where minorities have gained access (Cain 1992). This research contends that demographic configurations, along with institutional context, are central to understanding state ballot initiatives that affect minority groups.

The United States is among the most racially and ethnically diverse of the western democracies. This diversity has long been a central "dilemma" in U.S. political and social history (Myrdal 1944; Smith 1993). It has been argued that racial and ethnic diversity is a defining characteristic of state politics as well (Key 1949; Hero 1998). In the late twentieth century demographic change was a prominent concern. This study examines whether race/ethnicity matters in direct democracy elections, and with what implications. While most research on initiative voting focuses on one policy area, this study examines support for a series of ballot measures over a twelve-year period. Specifically, the research focuses on how racial/ethnic diversity affected white voting on ballot initiatives adopted in California, the nation's largest and most diverse state, over the period 1986-1998. The findings also raise broader theoretical issues. California has experienced rapid demographic change; as the United States as whole likewise experiences such change, we might anticipate similar, and different, policy responses. …

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