The Journal of Politics


Does Descriptive Race Representation Enhance Institutional Legitimacy? The Case of the U.S. Courts

Nancy Scherera1 and Brett Currya2

a1 Wellesley College

a2 Georgia Southern University


In the past two decades, numerous studies have tested empirically the normative theory of descriptive race representation. Here, we focus specifically on one aspect of descriptive representation—the relationship between increased racial representation and institutional legitimacy. Does greater racial diversity within a political institution increase its reservoir of good will? Using a novel experimental design centered on the federal courts, we find that greater descriptive representation for blacks causes increased legitimacy for the institution among African Americans. However, we also find that white support declines under the same experimental condition. In probing our data further, we discover that increased diversity does not impact blacks and whites in the same manner across the ideological spectrum. Rather, a person's ideology mediates how he or she assesses racial diversity on the bench. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings.

(Received February 12 2008)

(Accepted February 19 2009)


Nancy Scherer is an Associate Professor of political science at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02481.

Brett Curry is an Assistant Professor of political science at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA 30460.