Black Politicians Are More Intrinsically Motivated to Advance Blacks’ Interests: A Field Experiment Manipulating Political Incentives


  • I thank John Bullock, Dan Butler, Ryan Enos, Sean Gailmard, Don Green, Zoltan Hajnal, Greg Huber, Gabe Lenz, Todd Rogers, Eric Schickler, Chris Skovron, Laura Stoker, Jessica Suits, Rob van Houweling, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback. Eleanor Powell deserves special thanks for her guidance. The interviews discussed were conducted in June–August 2010 during participant observation research with 27 state legislators (14 white, 13 black) who at the time represented majority-minority state legislative districts. Interest group employees and legislative black caucus leaders also provided invaluable advice, information, and assistance during this period. I owe great thanks to these legislators for inviting me into their districts and their homes. I also owe special thanks to Martha Grant, April Lawson, the Bills family, Will and Nicola Wilson, Sara Meacham, and members of for making this participant observation work possible. The Yale College Dean's Office Fellowship in the Social Sciences, the Yale Political Science Department's Frank M. Patterson Grant, and the Jonathan Edwards College Richter Travel Fellowship were all generous in their financial support for these activities. I also acknowledge financial support from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies and Dan Butler also supported the collection and purchase of the datasets I employ. Replication data are available at the AJPS Dataverse.


Why are politicians more likely to advance the interests of those of their race? I present a field experiment demonstrating that black politicians are more intrinsically motivated to advance blacks’ interests than are their counterparts. Guided by elite interviews, I emailed 6,928 U.S. state legislators from a putatively black alias asking for help signing up for state unemployment benefits. Crucially, I varied the legislators’ political incentive to respond by randomizing whether the sender purported to live within or far from each legislator's district. While nonblack legislators were markedly less likely to respond when their political incentives to do so were diminished, black legislators typically continued to respond even when doing so promised little political reward. Black legislators thus appear substantially more intrinsically motivated to advance blacks’ interests. As political decision making is often difficult for voters to observe, intrinsically motivated descriptive representatives play a crucial role in advancing minorities’ political interests.