For the Culture: Examining the Electoral Success of African American Incumbents in the U.S. Congress

30 Pages Posted: 30 May 2019

Date Written: March 3, 2019


In a country where African Americans were once slaves, denied citizenship, elective office, and relegated to second class status a central question that has sparked the interest of scholars examining African American politics has been the benefits of African American political representation. Political Scientists such as Hanes Walton Jr. argues that the rise of African American politicians should significantly improve the lives of African Americans because these politicians will utilize their elected office to provide political representation for African Americans and pursue policies that will dismantle the legacy of racism for African Americans. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 African Americans politicians have won many seats to the United States Congress, yet few studies have explored the electoral success of these politicians. Studies that do examine the electoral success of African American Members of Congress all too often attribute their success to the creation of majority-minority congressional districts and provides very little attention to how they represent their constituencies. This chapter seeks to fill this void in the academic literature by examining the multiple contours that have attributed to the electoral success of African American congressional incumbents.

Analyzing congressional elections from 1970-2012, this chapter demonstrates that while majority-minority congressional district is one the factors that provides African American House Members with an electoral advantage that their electoral success can also be attributed to the fact that they (1) benefit enormously from the incumbency factor, (2) they often face weak challengers in elections and (3) they engage in a number of different symbolic forms of representation that speaks to African American culture. The findings of this chapter suggest that like their white counterparts African American congressional incumbents are strategic actors and utilize many tactics that maximize their reelection chances. This chapter concludes with a set of recommendations for future research that will aid the scholarly community in better unpacking success of African American Members of Congress and African American descriptive representation.

Suggested Citation

Riley, Emmitt Y., For the Culture: Examining the Electoral Success of African American Incumbents in the U.S. Congress (March 3, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Emmitt Y. Riley (Contact Author)

DePauw University ( email )

Greencastle, IN 46135
United States
6623920876 (Phone)

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