Professor of Government Chryl Laird lectures on politics, Black vote

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Chryl Laird, assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College, delivered a lecture to the Tufts community on Wednesday on her latest book, “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior.” The conversation was moderated by Deborah Schildkraut, chair of the Department of Political Science, and Sam Sommers, chair of the Department of Psychology.

Laird began the conversation by playing a clip from the television series “Black-ish” (2014–), and asked the audience to consider why the characters featured, despite having different leanings on social issues, dislike the Republican Party. She then presented different graphics that displayed widespread economic and ideological diversity among African Americans.

Frequently, we assume that African Americans are a monolith, but if there’s anything we can take away from this clip it’s clear that … from [the character’s] perspective you can do anything you want, but you can’t be a Republican,” Laird said.

She used the clip to segue into an idea outlined in her book called “racialized social restraint,” which seeks to explain political behavior by observing how social networks shape norms and expectations, according to Laird.

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“We define … racialized social constraint, as a process of enforcing the norms of Black political behavior,” Laird said. “It includes well-defined, racially specific social rewards and penalties, which are used to compel compliance with group-based expectations of political behavior.

She later examined African American history.

During the Civil Rights period with the challenging of the Jim Crow South and the institutions that it created and how it operated under the law, African Americans are organizing … Black prominent individuals within those spaces [are] being the leaders to provide the support for and the guidance for a lot of the collective behavior,” she said. 

Laird then cited an American National Election Studies poll which discussed African American voter support for the Democratic Party. 

“The reporting of democratic leaning is at about 85% amongst African Americans when they’re reporting on their partisanship … when we look at them being in the presence of a non-Black interviewer, very similar results,” she said. “Then when we look at the Black interviewer condition, what we see is a sizable increase between people reporting the democratic leanings … 96.4% of people are reporting that they are Democrats.”

Laird commented on the pressure within the African American community to associate with the Democratic Party.

“This is just one of many indications that there is an expectation amongst African Americans that they should be voting with the Democratic Party and that even the presence of somebody who is Black is serving as an embodiment of an understanding of that norm … even if they have beliefs, ideas, issue positions that would make them rationalize doing otherwise,” Laird said.

During the discussion, she shared that her book concludes that “racialized social restraint” shapes the political choices of African Americans.

Voting is a private act, but we argue that social pressure still matters,” Laird said. “Network effects can take hold long before an individual reaches the voting booth, and many of the events that lead up to the act of voting are socially structured.”

Laird noted that an effective way to curb the impact of this social norm is to encourage greater diversity within such networks.

Because so much of this [mechanism] is reliant on the social networks and the racial homogeneity of social networks, the ability to minimize the effectiveness of the norm would require more diversity in those networks,” Laird said. 

Sommers later asked whether African Americans’ tendency to vote for Democrats is due to allegiance to the Democratic Party itself or aversion to the Republican Party.

Laird said that support for Democrats is a pro-partisan behavior because of the strategic benefits of affiliating with them.

The Democratic Party is an opportunity where they can at least feel like to some degree, some of what they’re wanting is being heard,” Laird said. “It is less about distancing themselves from the Republican Party and much more about trying to really have a lot of leverage and positioning within the Democratic Party.”

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