The University Record, March 11, 2002

Black legislators more likely than others to vote pro-environment

By Rachel Ehrenberg
News and Information Services

Black legislators will play an increasingly important role in shaping and deciding the fate of national environmental policy, according to a U-M study that examines, for the first time, the long-term trends in the environmental voting behavior of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“For the entire period between 1981 and 1998 the environmental voting scores of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have been consistently higher than either white Democrats or Republicans in the House of Representatives,” says Paul Mohai, associate professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

The study by Mohai, and former U-M graduate student David Kershner, will appear in the March issue of “Social Science Quarterly.” Their research examines environmental voting trends 1981–1998, and provides the first systematic analyses of hypotheses that try to explain racial differences in the voting behavior of the House of Representatives. Sources of data in the study include environmental voting scores from the League of Conservation Voters, reported in the League’s National Environmental Scorecard, and data from the American Conservative Union and U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition to challenging the myth that Blacks care less about the environment than whites, this study suggests that the role of Black legislators as shapers of environmental policy only will increase as they gain seniority and additional seats in Congress. The number of Blacks in the House has more than doubled since the early 1980s (18 in 1981 to 39 in 1999).

An earlier study by Mohai found that contrary to conventional wisdom, Black Americans are just as concerned, and frequently more concerned about environmental issues, than their white counterparts. The present study places the focus on the influence of Black members of Congress on environmental policy. The study examined factors such as ideology, regional affiliation and the environmental justice movement in an effort to explain racial differences in environmental voting. It found that a combination of elements play a role, and that the differences cannot be accounted for by any one factor.

The attention to environmental issues by Blacks frequently is attributed to the growth of the environmental justice movement, a grass-roots effort focused on concerns about the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities with people of color. However, the high environmental voting scores of the Congressional Black Caucus cannot be attributed solely to this movement.

“We tracked the number of people of color in environmental organizations and found the high level of support for environmental legislation has been around for a long time, prior to the rapid growth of the environmental justice movement,” Mohai says.

Between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, the number of people of color environmental organizations tripled from about 100 to more than 300. However, over this same approximate time period the average pro-environmental voting scores of CBC members have hovered consistently around 75 percent to 80 percent.

While there is evidence from public surveys that people identifying themselves as liberals do express more concern about the environment than people identifying themselves as conservatives, ideology does not entirely explain the differences either, and regional affiliation also seems to play an important role, Mohai says.