Dealing with diversity: Racial/ethnic context and social policy change

Caroline J. Tolbert, Rodney E. Hero

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

78 Scopus citations


We propose and provide an explanation of voting behavior that argues it is a convergence of a social context (high racial/ethnic diversity) and institutional context (frequent, use of direct democracy) that is associated with the adoption of public policies targeted at minority groups. We examine this argument in the state of California, the most racially diverse state in the nation, and one that has historically high usage of ballot initiatives. We analyze white voting for four social policy ballot initiatives that directly targeted minority groups over a twelve-year period. Using King's method of ecological inference (1997), the study demonstrates that white support for the initiatives varied systematically by racial and ethnic environments across policy issues and over time. The white votes was consistently higher in "bifurcated" environments, as might be expected given Key's (1949) research on a racial threat; but is was also notably higher in "homogeneous" contexts, even after accounting for economic conditions and partisanship. Social heterogeneity, particularly white ethnic diversity, is associated with lower support for the ballot propositions. The research expands the social diversity interpretation (Hero 1998) by taking into consideration institutional context, contributes to our understanding of minorities and direct democracy, and raises broader questions about procedural democracy and the appropriate scope of conflict for direct democracy elections in the U.S.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)571-604
Number of pages34
JournalPolitical Research Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2001
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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