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From Protest to Policymaking: Black Legislative Strategies in the Post-War Era

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

On a daily basis, black legislators, like all legislators, are faced with competing demands for their limited time and resources. They must decide which of their priorities are worth fighting for and how best to fight for them. It is through these daily decisions that members provide their constituents with representation. The primary purpose of this dissertation is to understand how black legislators make these choices. More broadly, this dissertation asks why black members of Congress engage in the legislative strategies they do. Are they distinct from the strategies used by non-black members? What influences which activities they engage in and when? And, what does this mean for the substantive representation of blacks in America?

Based upon analyses of an original dataset that looks at floor speeches and committee work of all legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives in four issue areas during select congresses over a 50-year span of time, I show that race impacts how members of Congress strategically invest their limited resources in the legislative process. More particularly, I argue that in comparison to their white counterparts, and all else equal, black legislators will exploit strategic opportunities to advocate for the interests of African American communities. How they exploit these opportunities, however, varies in response to the particular conditions they face. I show that shifts in black legislative strategies have occurred on two levels. First, as black legislators have become more institutionally incorporated they have shifted their strategies away from rhetorical floor advocacy (protest) to one focused on committee advocacy (policymaking). On another level, black legislative behavior is much more nuanced, responding to the continually changing congressional circumstances. More particularly, black legislative strategies shift in response to the changing (1) positions of black legislators in Congress, (2) the partisan control of the House and the position of key Congressional players, and (3) the issue being pursued.

The project holds major implications for evaluating the substantive benefits of descriptive representation by showing that there are inherent benefits to electing black legislators. However, the benefits they provide are not equally felt among all segments of the black community.

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