The Race and Class “Giving Gap” in Political Contributions

Political campaigns are not run for free. Money is needed to pay for advertisements, consultants, phone banks, computer services, pollsters, and the like. As such, political contributions are the lifeblood of election campaigns.

And when candidates go looking for the green, the contributors are overwhelmingly rich and white. Consider the primaries for the 2004 presidential campaign, which included George Bush and John Kerry, as well as African American candidates Carol Moseley Braun and Rev. Al Sharpton. A study titled Color of Money: The 2004 Presidential Race, which was released by Public Campaign, the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, and the William C. Velasquez Institute, reported that

The top contributing zip code to all presidential campaigns—including both the Bush and Kerry campaigns—was 10021, on Manhattan’s exclusive Upper East Side, which was the source of $4.2 million. President Bush and Sen. Kerry collected 71% of this amount, $1.3 and $1.7 million respectively.

In contrast, the zip code 10035, just a few miles away in Harlem, was the source of just $1,000 and $2,750, respectively, for Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) and Sen. Kerry.

The zip code 10021 was the source of more campaign cash for presidential campaigns than:
• 377 zip codes nationwide with the largest percentage of African Americans, containing a total of 6.9 million people ages 18 and over, 75 times more people than live in 10021;
• 365 zip codes nationwide with the largest percentage of Latino Americans, containing a total of 8.1 million people ages 18 and over, 89 times more people than live in 10021.

Of all the major candidates, President George W. Bush raised the lowest percentage of campaign money from neighborhoods where people of color are the majority, 8.3%, while Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) raised 10.7%. Overall, Democratic candidates collected 11.4% of their $200+ individual contributions from these neighborhoods.

This should not be a surprise. African American and Hispanic households earn less money than white ones, and the ranks of the wealthy are dominated by whites. That makes minorities less able to contribute.

As noted by Dr. William E. Spriggs, Executive Director of the National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality: “the statistics in the Color of Money demonstrate the point we all know intuitively: communities of color and the poor are severely underrepresented because of their inability to keep pace with the campaign contributions from wealthier, non-minority communities. The disparity underscores why legislators spend 100 hours on telecommunications reform and 10 hours on welfare reform.”

The study mentions that the African American candidates in the 2004 primaries, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) and Rev. Al Sharpton, raised triple the proportion of their campaign contributions from majority people of color neighborhoods—37.5% and 36.2%, respectively-than did Bush and Kerry. This may be less of a positive than it looks: the relatively high proportion of black support for these candidates is no doubt related to the fact that they got a lower proportion of white support than other candidates.

This primary season, as reported by the Campaign Finance Institute, Sen. Barack Obama has done quite well with small donations, most of which have come over the Internet. It remains to be seen how much of this has come from African Americans, but studies on the subject should be coming before the end of the year. But the ease of use that the Internet provides in making contributions appears to be a factor in driving small dollar donations from people of all races.

(The Campaign Finance Institute has an interesting article, Obama’s Fundraising Slowdown: Will It Cause Him to Look More toward Large Donors?, which looks at Obama’s fundraising challenges for the general election.)

While income and economics are certainly a major factor in the lagging amount of campaign donations from African Americans, I wonder how much of this is about negative feelings and attitudes toward giving money to any politicians, whether black or white.

One thing I’ve noted, in conversations with family and friends, is a marked distaste for making political contributions. A lot of African Americans have grown cynical of politics, and of course, that cynicism is justified.

But that can be self-defeating. If we never contribute to candidates who at least might be willing to support our interests, we’re much more likely to get candidates who don’t care about our interests at all.

So, please. At the least, think about it. If there are candidates you like, consider making donations to them, especially candidates at the state and local level. And engage in discussions with your family and friends about this subject.

Perhaps the money we can offer isn’t as large or grand as what the candidates can get from the rich. But having a small voice is better than remaining silent. And silence should not be an option.

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