Power and Minority Representation

  • Kenicia WrightEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2524-1


Active Representation Political Participation Racial Minority Descriptive Representation Substantive Representation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



There are two types of representation – descriptive or passive representative refers to the level of similarity in descriptive characteristics, such as one’s race, between bureaucrats or politicians and their constituents, while substantive or active representation refers to whether bureaucrats or politicians pursue the interests of their constituents.


Representation is a foundational component of democracy and a key piece of the processes of governance and administration. The percent of racial minorities – members of the public who identify Black, American Indian/Alaska native, Asian, and nonwhite Hispanics – is growing. According to the US Census Bureau in 2010, nearly 74 % of America’s population were White, 14 % were Black, nearly 2 % identified as American Indian/Alaska native, and nearly 6 % as Asian, while slightly more than 16 % identified as Hispanic or Latino (US Census Bureau). Population projections estimate that 62 % of the American population were White, 12 % were Black, 1 % were American Indian/Alaska Native, 6 % were Asian, and 18 % were Hispanic in 2014 (Kaiser Family Foundation 2015). This comparison of population demographics reveals changes in the short time period of 4 years. The percent of the population who identify as racial minority groups is growing as are differences between minorities and Whites in America.

Although racial minorities comprise a growing sector of the public, racial minorities are traditionally underrepresented in American government and bureaucracies. America has a long history of race impacting the quality of life an individual leads. Significant strides have been made since the influence of race from the days of slavery and Jim Crow laws, but race remains an important determinant of the life of Americans, particularly for racial minorities. When compared to Whites, racial minorities face higher unemployment rates, receive lower pay, and accumulate lower levels of wealth and are more likely to be incarcerated. There are also differences in the education realm as minority students have lower standardized test performance, are more likely to face discipline and to be placed in special education classes, and graduate at lower rates than White students.

Increasing minority representation is viewed as a potential avenue for improving outcomes for minorities in the public. As mentioned, race has important effects. Because of their shared racial identity, many racial minorities often have similar socialization and life experiences. These shared experiences often result in similar political outlooks and behavior among racial minorities and motivate the view that increasing minority representatives will generate positive effects for minorities in society. The logic is that when minorities are in a bureaucratic position or elected to political office, these representatives pursue the interests and behave in the best interests of minorities in the public. These benefits are often generated – as research shows, minority politicians improve the trust minorities of government, have higher levels of satisfaction with their representatives, and are more likely to pursue the interests of minority constituents.

Given these effects, this project examines minority representation as a source of power. The effects of minority representatives – whether in the form of elected officials or bureaucrats – are beneficial for minorities in the public, and thus minority representation is a power source. This project begins with a definition of different types of representation and by reviewing common theories/models of representation, such as the delegate vs. trustee models of representation, Pitkin’s descriptive and substantive representation (commonly applied in studies of elected officials), passive and active representation (commonly applied in studies of the bureaucracy), and the theory of representative bureaucracy. The second section presents the theoretical expectations behind viewing minority representation as a power source, and the project concludes with consideration of the actual effects of minority representation. The concluding section will offer insight on whether there is support for the theories that will be described in the first section. There is an extensive line of research on minority representation – far more than can be reviewed in one article – so this project focuses on a mixture of the most important seminal projects on minority representation as well as some of the more recent work in this line of research.

What Is Representation?

Questions about representation date back for centuries, and there have been many definitions of the concept. In the broadest sense, representation refers to the relationship between elected officials and their constituents. Political representation refers to making the voices, opinions, and perspectives of citizens “present” in the public policy-making process (Pitkin 1967). Representation refers to what political actors symbolize, speak, as well as how representatives behave and can result from those in elected or political positions and through those in bureaucratic position. The next paragraphs discuss theories of representation: the trustee and delegate models of representation, a model of representation that is generally applied for elected officials from Pitkin (1967), and representation models commonly applied to the non-elected members of the bureaucracy (passive and active representation).

Trustee vs. Delegate Model of Representation

Two long-standing models of the appropriate role of representatives are the delegate model of representation and the trustee model of representation. Focusing on the former, delegate representatives are elected by constituents and behave according to the desires on their constituents irrespective of the conscience of the representatives (Mill 1862). Under this model, delegate representatives must act in accordance with the desires of his/her constituents; in other words, delegates are not supposed to go against public opinion. In essence, delegate representatives are messengers who carry out the exact desires of the public. On the other hand, trustee representatives are elected and entrusted to act in alignment with the greater good. Trustee representatives are expected to use their opinions, judgment, and conscience to behave according to his/her own understanding of the best actions for constituents. In this model, it is acceptable for trustees to (temporarily) go against the desires of their constituents so long as their actions are aimed at bringing about the greater good of the public.

Pitkin’s Representation Theories

More recent efforts expand of these representational theories. One of the leading scholars in contemporary theories of representation is Hanna Fenichel Pitkin. Pitkin (1967) offers four theories of representation: formalistic representation, symbolic representation, descriptive representation, and substantive representation. Based on Hobbes’ view of representation, formalistic representation emphasizes the formal structures and arrangements that generate a representative government. The logic of formalistic representation is that representation automatically generates with proper forms and processes. There are two dimensions to formalistic representation: authorization (the means through which representatives get their position, office, or standing) and accountability (the responsiveness of the representative to their constituents or how constituents are able to punish their representatives). Symbolic representation is slightly different. Symbolic representation refers to the ways representatives create the perception that he/she shares and stands for the issues important to his/her constituents. This type occurs when something visible represents something that is invisible; resemblance or reflection is not required; symbolic representation is about what the representative means to the constituent he/she represents.

Two additional types of representation are substantive representation and descriptive representation. These types of representation are probably the most common metrics of representation. Substantive representation refers to the actions representatives take on behalf of constituents. This type of representation refers to what representatives do when in their office or position. Descriptive representation refers to the extent to which representatives resemble or look like those being represented. Unlike substantive representation, descriptive representation is about the appearance similarity between representatives and their constituents.

Passive and Active Representation

Public administration research focuses on two types of representation in the bureaucracy – passive representation and active representation. Descriptive representation and substantive representation are often examined in the political context (i.e., elected politicians). Public administration research commonly examines passive and active representation. Similar to descriptive and substantive representation, the types of representation commonly examined in public administration research also involve the appearance of bureaucrats and what bureaucrats do when in a position. While passive representation is the extent that a bureaucracy is comprised of people from diverse demographic backgrounds, active representation refers to the pursuit of policies reflecting the interests and desires of people from different demographic backgrounds (Bradbury and Kellough 2007, 697). Scholars who examine these different types of representation often assess the level of representativeness by focusing on race and ethnicity of the bureaucrats. So what is the logic of focusing on minority bureaucrats? Do these bureaucrats adopt attitudes, behave, or have effects that are different from their White counterparts? The next section explores the importance and the theory behind viewing minority representation as a source of power.

Why Is Minority Representation Important?

Shared Socialization Experiences with Minorities in Society

Individuals are comprised of many different social identities. These identities affect our socialization experiences, and, in turn, our socialization experiences shape an individual’s attitudes and the behavior he/she engages in. Socialization refers to the continuous process where an individual acquires personality, learns norms, values, behaviors, and social skills. Social identities, such as race, have important influences on socialization and ultimately an individual’s political attitudes and behavior. The shared socialization and experiences of minorities lead to minority representatives adopting similar attitudes and engaging in similar behavior as minority citizens; having someone acting on their behalf and pursuing the issues important to them means minority representation is a source of power for minorities in the public.

The benefits of minority representation make minority representation a source of power. Minorities in the public accrue these benefits in two ways: from seeing representatives who share a social identity with them in a position or because minority representatives pursue the interest of minorities in the public when they are in a position. The following sections discuss both of these avenues.

The Theory of Representative Bureaucracy

This logic is captured in the theory of representative bureaucracy, which is a theory commonly examined in public administration research. The theory of representative bureaucracy suggests as the bureaucracy becomes more demographically diverse, policy outcomes will better represent the interests of groups in society. In other words, as it becomes more representative of the public, the bureaucracy will be more responsive to the public (Selden 1997). In the beginning the focus was on bureaucratic representativeness/responsiveness to the dominant class; scholars eventually expanded this focus to include more members of the general public. The theory of representative bureaucracy theory also connects passive and active representation by arguing passive representation (such as more racial minorities in the bureaucracy) leads to representation of the interests of racial and ethnic minorities in society (Thompson 1976).

Linked Fate

The linked fate theory offers more insight on why minority representation is power. The basis for viewing minority representation as a source of power is the perception that when minority representatives gain a position, they will act/behave in a way that benefits minorities in the public. Socialization is one motivation for the premise driving this idea. A second reason we can expect this behavior from minorities is the linked fate theory. Put forth in Dawson (1994), the theory of linked fate argues that because of the dominance of race in shaping the experience of Black Americans, Blacks prioritize the well-being of other Blacks when determining their interests. The premise for this theory is that, given the treatment of racial minorities in the history of the United States, the life chances of individual Black Americans are inextricably tied to the well-being of the race as a whole. In other words, these minorities view their fate as linked to other members of their racial group. As a result of this view of “linked fate,” Blacks are expected to vote in alignment with whatever is the best interest of the entire racial group. This sense of linked fate exists regardless of class, education, or income of Blacks.

Are Minority Representatives a Source of Power? Promising Effects in Extant Literature

The effects of minority representation make minority representation a source of power. Up to this point, the theoretical effects of minority representation have been presented. Given the importance of understanding the effects of representation, there are countless studies devoted to this topic. Many of the studies offer support for the theoretical expectations of the effects of minority representation. The next section will review pieces of literature on minority representation.

Effects of Descriptive and Substantive Representation

There is support for many of the expected benefits of descriptive and substantive representation. Descriptive representation refers to the similarity in descriptive characteristics such as gender, race, and ethnicity, while substantive representation refers to representatives who pursue the interests of their constituents. Descriptive representation and substantive representation are often the focus of studies on elected political officials. Although descriptive representation does not guarantee substantive representation, descriptive representation often provides the foundation necessary for substantive representation to occur. Descriptive representation leads to higher assessments of government by minorities. Abney and Hutcheson (1981) find Blacks have higher levels of trust in their city government when the mayor of the city is Black than when the mayor does not share their racial identity. Minority political participation is larger in areas with high levels of descriptive representation. Focusing on party and race, Griffin and Keane (2006) find that Blacks who are liberal are more likely to vote when descriptively represented in their state legislature than Blacks who are moderate or Blacks who are conservative. Similarly, there are studies that find Blacks are more satisfied with their government with controls for the party affiliation of the legislator, voting record, seniority, and committee. Notions of linked fate are also confirmed with results that are particularly strong for Blacks and suggest Blacks share similar stances on policies, regardless of class divisions.

Many other scholars examine the effects of minority representation by testing the minority empowerment theory. This theory argues that when groups attain significant representation, members of the group will be empowered in a manner that influences their political participation (Bobo and Gilliam 1990). The General Social Survey (or GSS) asks respondents a plethora of questions regarding their social policy preferences, political attitudes, and opinions of government and politicians. Researchers commonly use GSS data. When there is a Black mayor in the largest city of a primary sampling unit in GSS data, there are increases in socio-political involvement, trust, and political efficacy of minorities in the public (Bobo and Gilliam 1990). Other benefits of descriptive representation are that Black voters are more likely to recall the name, contact, and say they approve of the performance of their representative when the representative is Black than when their representative is not Black (Banducci et al. 2004). Higher levels of minority representation also lead to improved assessments of government by minorities in the public (Abney and Hutcheson 1981); Blacks and Latinos are more likely to vote in state legislature elections in states with high levels of minority representation and higher levels of political efficacy. The effects of descriptive representation also seem to be long-lasting (Gilliam and Kaufman 1998). Similar benefits result from Latino representative; as the amount of Latino representation in state assembly, state senate, and/or US House increases, political alienation in Latinos decreases.

There is also support for the link between descriptive and substantive representation (Banducci et al. 2004; Mansbridge 1999). Descriptive representation not only has positive effects on assessments of government and the political participation of minorities, it also leads to substantive representation in many cases. For example, descriptive representation of Latinos leads to substantive representation of Latino interests. Descriptive representation also results in minority representatives being more responsive to requests for information when there are limited political incentives than White representatives.

Support for Benefits of a Representative Bureaucracy

Similarly to descriptive representation, there are benefits from passive representation. Many studies examine the theory of representative bureaucracy by focusing on education policy. The research suggests there are many positive effects that result from passive representation. For example, minority teachers can serve as “role models” for disadvantaged students, and minority teachers have even been shown to affect how White teachers behave; outcomes also improve when levels of passive representation are high.

Many of the seminal pieces of work testing the theory of representative bureaucracy use educational data. The results of these studies offer support for the representative bureaucracy theory as there are positive effects from passive representation and active representation, and there appears to be a link that commonly exists between the two types of representation. The connection between passive representation and active representation appear and is most likely to occur when minority representatives are in positions with discretion. Selden (1997) examines the effects of minority representation and finds that as the amount of minority teachers and administrators increases, there is a reduction in discrimination and improved student performance.

Similar benefits are found in more recent examination of representative bureaucracy theory. Many of the more recent studies examine the theory using educational data. Kenneth Meier and a host of coauthors have contributed seminal pieces of research in this area. Using data from Texas school districts, Meier et al. (1989) find increases in Black teachers and Latino teachers improve the academic performance of Black students and Latino students. Some examples of these effects include Black students being more likely to be referred for gifted courses when taught by a Black teacher, the benefits of minority representation exist in charter schools as well as traditional public schools, the effects of minority representation are strongest in the South, and the effects are particularly strong for Black teachers who teach lower grade levels.

There are also studies on the representative bureaucracy theory that move outside of the educational arena. When studies focus on administrators, findings generally suggest that Black administrators and Black citizens have very similar attitudes. There is more congruence between attitudes of Black administrators and Black citizens than the congruence between Black citizens and White administrators. The link between this type of passive representation and active representation is also supported as these Black administrators are more likely than White administrators and White citizens to support governmental action that addresses the issues important to the Black community. Many empirical studies confirm a link between passive and active representation for minority representatives, and there are times when the benefits of high levels of minority representation are experienced by nonminorities in society.


Race is a salient social identity and shapes the life experiences and life qualities of members of societies. The experiences of minorities are marred with difficulties and disadvantage, but these experiences are often shared by members of the same racial group. The common socialization experiences give rise to many minorities sharing similar political attitudes and behavior and are the basis for viewing minority representation as a source of power. This has given rise to the linked fate theory and the logic that when elected to political office or in a position, minorities will behave in a manner that benefits minorities in the public.

This paper begins by presenting theories on representation, discussing the logic behind viewing minority representation as a source of power, and concludes with a review of literature on representation. First, models of representation from one of the earliest models (the delegate model of representation and the trustee model of representation) to models common in research on elected representatives (descriptive representation and substantive representation) to models common in research on the bureaucracy (passive and active models of representation) are reviewed. Given the importance of representation, there is an extensive line of research on the topic. The literature review presented here is by no means all-inclusive but covers seminal research as well as important, more recent works on minority representation.

These theories note the possibility for many positive effects from representation. After reviewing theoretical expectations, the results in studies in the literature are presented. Many of the benefits theoretically expected are found. Some of the benefits of minority representation include higher assessments of government, higher levels of trust for government, and in some cases increased political participation of minorities in the public.

The major take-away from this piece is that minority representation is a source of power. Minorities elected to political office and minorities in the bureaucracy both have important effects for minorities in the public. These benefits are the motivation for viewing minority representation as a source of power. Recent examinations, however, suggest that the effects of minority representation extend beyond individuals who share the racial and ethnic identity to minorities who do not share the racial or ethnic identity of their representatives and even Whites in some cases.

With the understanding that minority representation is a source of power, there are many promising directions for future research. First, the power of minority representation may actually be larger than the literature suggests. The effects of minority representatives have been examined in a narrow set of contexts, such as where minority interests are known or can be inferred, specific minority decision makers can be identified, and decisions on issues relevant to minority interests can be isolated and linked back to particular decision makers (Bradbury and Kellough 2007). Studying different environments will be beneficial for our understanding of the effects of minority representation.

Another promising direction for future research is further examination of when minority representation generates negative effects. Some scholars have already started examining this possibility or have found no effects from minority representation on the attitudes or outcomes of minorities in the public. Future research can build on this by focusing on when minority representation is more likely to result in negative effects than positive effects. Another promising direction for future research is studying what happens when considering more than one identity. In part, this paper presents the effects of one salient identity: race. Since individuals are comprised of more than one identity, another promising step for future research is examining whether minority female representatives are a source of power. A few scholars have started studying minority female representatives, and many scholars have called for greater consideration of interactive effects of race and gender. It would be promising for the future to continue this line of research.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of HoustonHoustonUSA