Book examines influence of racism on voting rights

AMES, Iowa – There is greater awareness today of structural racism in the U.S., but Americans are still split on the impact it has on the voting rights of underrepresented groups, according to a new book co-authored by an Iowa State University political scientist.

Dave Peterson, a professor and Lucken Professor of Political Science, says attempts to restrict vote-by-mail efforts for the November election are just one example. In their book, “Ignored Racism” Peterson and co-author Mark Ramirez examine the history of hostility toward Latinos and how it influences attitudes about voting rights.

In surveys conducted between 2014 and 2018, Peterson and Ramirez saw a significant increase – 28% to 45% – in the proportion of Americans who recognized the effects of structural racism on Latinos. However, there was a sharp partisan divide with greater agreement among Democrats than Republicans that racism limits the success of Latinos.

Peterson says this hostility, what they refer to in the book as “Latino/a Racism Ethnicism,” has a powerful influence on attitudes about voting rights. In contemporary politics, he says the debate often focuses on voter fraud and voter ID laws.  

“When Americans think about people who should not vote, it is often tied to immigrants, and the image or stereotype many people have is that immigrants are Latinos,” Peterson said.

The researchers tested the influence of these attitudes in two different experiments. The first focused on voter ID laws and found people with negative attitudes about African Americans and Latinos were more likely to support voter restrictions.

The second experiment required participants to remove one of two individuals from voter rolls based on randomly assigned attributes such as gender, race, ethnicity, criminal background and voting history. Again, for those with negative attitudes, race and ethnicity were factors in their decisions.

“It’s pretty clear that these attitudes matter in terms of policy and how people vote,” Peterson said. “People with negative attitudes are more likely to vote for candidates who support restrictions on immigration.”

Some candidates may campaign on immigration this fall, but Peterson says it will not be as important to voters as the COVID-19 pandemic and current social climate.

Belief in the American Dream

The pursuit of the American Dream is a central theme or component of many political campaigns and how politicians communicate with the public. In a separate study, Peterson and co-author Jennifer Wolak, University of Colorado, analyzed how the belief in the American Dream has changed over time.

The research, published in the American Journal of Political Science, considered the effects of income inequality, changes in social mobility and rates of homeownership on the level of belief. Peterson says as inequality increases, belief in the attainability of the American Dream declines. The same is true when homeownership rates and people’s ability to move up the socioeconomic ladder fall.

“The American Dream is fundamental to American political culture,” Peterson said. “For belief in the dream to rebound, it’ll likely take action to improve the economy and make homeownership more accessible.”