Racial Equality In US South Improved By ‘Instrumental’ 1960s Voting Rights Act


The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 enfranchised a new section of society across the US South, which led to greater racial representation across local governments, a new study has found.

The VRA eliminated literacy tests and other obstacles to Black voters’ registration, leading to an immediate increase in Black turnout, the study authors explain.

Professor Giovanni Facchini and Professor Cecilia Testa from the University of Nottingham, and Dr Andrea Bernini from the University of Oxford, explored the effects of the VRA in a new paper published in the Journal of Political Economy.

In the paper, ‘Race, Representation, and Local Governments in the US South: The Effect of the Voting Rights Act’, the academics explore how the act promoted the election of Black politicians to office in the years that followed.

Civil rights leaders at the time, like Martin Luther King Jr., hoped the new law would lead to more Black representation in elected office. But the effectiveness of the VRA has been questioned, since the rise in Black lawmakers in state and federal governments was viewed as disappointingly slow, the authors say. Bernini, Facchini, and Testa studied whether the VRA was effective by assessing its impact on the racial composition of all local governments in the US South over the following two decades.

Cecilia Testa, Professor of Political Economy, said: “Minorities are often under-represented in politics. This is problematic because the ‘group identity’ of elected politicians affects policies, provides role models, and influences stereotypes.

“Several countries have put in place strong remedial measures to improve representation of disadvantaged groups, for example seats reserved for minorities and gender quotas. The US – where the issue of minority representation has been and remains central – has followed a different approach, relying on courts to enforce the anti-discriminatory provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“To understand whether, when and how one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in US history led to gains in Black office holding, we decided to undertake the first systematic assessment of the Voting Rights Act’s impact on racial representation in all local governments in the US South between 1962 and 1980.”

By collating data on African Americans serving on county governments, school district boards, and municipal governing bodies for the eleven states of the former Confederacy between 1962 and 1980, the study shows that the introduction of the VRA was instrumental in improving racial equality across local governments.

Professor Testa added: “Race remains one of the most debated issues in American politics. The coverage provisions of the VRA lasted until 2013. Following the removal of coverage, civil rights organisations have reported a surge in potentially discriminatory election practices.

“This research shows that minority empowerment can lead to important policy changes. Before the passage of the VRA, Black communities in the US South suffered from chronic underinvestment in basic local infrastructure. Spending on public infrastructure grew once African Americans gained representation in local governments. This is just one example of tangible improvement following the election of Black lawmakers.”

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