John Roberts and the Color of Money

Applying the history of white supremacy in America to the Supreme Court's McCutcheon decision
Larry Downing/Reuters

There has been plenty of talk about the Ta-Nehisi Coates-Jonathan Chait argument over the term "black culture" in the context of the ills of poverty and the question of progress as seen through the lens of the actual history of America.

A drastically shortened version of Coates’s analysis is that white supremacy—and the imposition of white power on African-American bodies and property—have been utterly interwoven through the history of American democracy, wealth and power from the beginnings of European settlement in North America. The role of the exploitation of African-American lives in the construction of American society and polity did not end in 1865. Rather, through the levers of law, lawless violence, and violence under the color of law, black American aspirations to wealth, access to capital, access to political power, a share in the advances of the social safety net and more have all been denied with greater or less efficiency. There has been change—as Coates noted in a conversation he and I had a couple of years ago, in 1860 white Americans could sell children away from their parents, and in 1865 they could not—and that is a real shift. But such beginnings did not mean that justice was being done nor equity experienced.

Once you start seeing American history through the corrective lens created by the generations of scholars and researchers on whose work Coates reports, then it becomes possible—necessary, really—to read current events in a new light. Take, for example, the McCutcheon decision that continued the Roberts Court program of gutting campaign-finance laws.

The conventional—and correct, as far as it goes—view of the outcome, enabling wealthy donors to contribute to as many candidates as they choose, is that this further tilts the political playing field towards the richest among us at the expense of every American voter. See noted analyst Jon Stewart for a succinct presentation of this view.

But that first-order take on this latest from the Supreme Court's right wing misses a crucial dimension. It isn't just rich folks who benefit from the Roberts Court's view that money equals speech. Those who gain possess other key identifiers. For one thing, they form a truly a tiny elite. As oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC were being prepared last fall, the Public Campaign delivered a report on all those who approached the money limits the court struck down. They amount to just 1,219 people in the U.S.—that's four in every 1,000,000 of our population.

Unsurprisingly, most of the report simply reinforces the main theme of the reaction to the Supreme Court's decision: This is one more step toward securing governance of, for, and by rich people and their well-compensated servants. One of the most troubling aspects of the story is that the top donors in this country simply don't encounter ordinary folks, the middle class no more than the poor:

Nearly half of the elite donors (47.6 percent) live in the richest one percent of neighborhoods, as measured by per capita income, and more than four out of every five (80.5 percent) are from the richest 10 percent.

Equally unsurprisingly, the world of top donors is overwhelmingly male:

Of donors for whom gender data were available, only 25.7 percent of the elite donors in 2012 were women, even lower than the paltry one-third of donors giving at least $200 to a federal campaign that election cycle. Also, 304 superlimit donors have a spouse or other family member as another member of list, which could indicate either a very politically interested family or a way for one donor to circumvent the existing limits through contributions in his or her spouse’s name. Of the donors without another family member on the list, only 17.7 percent are women.

And against the argument that regardless of the source of the money, cash is gender blind, I give you both data and Nancy Pelosi:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) identifies big money as a key factor holding this number down: “If you reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of civility, you’ll have more women elected to public office, and sooner, and that nothing is more wholesome to the governmental and political process than increased participation of women.”

In contrast, further increasing the role of money in politics by removing the aggregate contribution limit means the Supreme Court may end up pushing down women’s role in campaigns even further. CRP’s “Sex, Money and Politics,” report also found that “Women tend to make up a larger percentage of the donor pool when contribution amounts are limited by law.” It continues to note that the three cycles in which loopholes for sending unlimited contributions to political parties or outside groups like super PACs were largely closed, women played a larger role: “In the 2004, 2006 and 2008 cycles, which were the only three since 1990 with strict donation limits restricting the amount of money a single individual could give, the percentage of women as a portion of the donor pool increased.”

But even these pathologies are vastly less severe than those to be found through the lens of race. People of color are almost entirely absent from the top donor profile, and none more so than members of the community that white Americans enslaved for two centuries:

While more than one-in-six Americans live in a neighborhood that is majority African-American or Hispanic, less than one-in-50 superlimit donors do. More than 90 percent of these elite donors live in neighborhoods with a greater concentration of non- Hispanic white residents than average. African-Americans are especially underrepresented. The median elite donor lives in a neighborhood where the African-American population counts for only 1.4 percent, nine times less than the national rate.

In other words: Political money and hence influence at the top levels is disproportionately white, male, and with almost no social context that includes significant numbers of African Americans and other people of color.

Presented by

Tom Levenson

Thomas Levenson is the director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. His work has appeared in The Boston GlobeDiscover, andThe Sciences. He writes regularly at The Inverse Square Blog.

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