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Descriptive Representation and Equal Access to the Law: Race, Representation, and Crime Policy in America


This dissertation investigates the origins of inequalities in the application of state power. When do democratic institutions produce egalitarian outcomes, and when do they reinforce existing inequalities? How and when does descriptive representation change policy outcomes? I examine these questions in the context of a key point of contact between American citizens and the state: interactions with police. Previous work has shown that people of color are both more likely than whites to be arrested for similar behaviors, and less likely to receive aid from the criminal justice system in dealing with violence. In this dissertation, I argue that inequalities in the application of police power result from differences in local political representation.

The first section of my dissertation develops my theory of representation. I argue that descriptive representation has especially important consequences when intra-party differences between groups are high. Using national survey data, I show that black Democrats are far more concerned about both crime and police violence than white Democrats or Republicans. Historical case studies from both national and local policy-making suggest that when black Democrats cannot rely on their co-partisans to support their policy interests, descriptive representation plays a critical role in linking elite and mass interests.

Subsequent chapters develop and test a framework for understanding how institutions mediate political representation. While existing work has assessed how small numbers of black or female legislators engage in advocacy within legislative bodies, I find that subordinate groups can improve policy outcomes most effectively by holding political power -- that is, by changing the composition of city councils. Using genetic matching on a national data set of cities, I find that majority minority city councils reduce racial disparities in police enforcement by more than half. Majority power is key to changing policy outcomes.

Drawing on observations of neighborhood councils and primary source documents in rapidly gentrifying, racially mixed East Bay neighborhoods, I challenge the conventional wisdom that local participatory democracy improves accountability and police-community relationships. Instead, I find that these institutions enhance the power of neighborhood networks, which use the meetings to deploy police against members of the community they regard as dangerous. Divided communities with two major groups are particularly prone to capture by local elites; diverse or fragmented communities have more broadly representative institutions.

The final section examines the consequences of intensive policing for the distribution of police violence. Using a unique data set on police shootings from South Carolina, combined with a natural experiment on use of force in New York City, I show that racial disparities in police shootings owe more to racial differences in exposure to arrest than to differences in the risk of violence conditional on arrest.

These findings cast light on the conditions under which democratic institutions lead to inegalitarian outcomes. I argue that, when parties do not effectively represent the policy positions of racial minorities, minority groups need independent access to political power. Moreover, participatory democratic institutions often reflect and exacerbate existing political inequalities.

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