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Symbols of the Struggle: Descriptive Representation and Issue-Based Symbolism in US House Speeches

The rhetoric legislators use to discuss race is both important and understudied. In this article, we explore whether the presence of Black legislators influences symbolic representation in the US House. We ask three questions. First, do Black and white members of Congress talk about issues involving race at different rates? Second, when Black and white members of Congress talk about race, do they do so in different ways? Third, do these rhetorical differences matter for Black constituents? Using data from 790,654 US House floor speeches, the Cooperative Election Study, and data from an original survey experiment, we demonstrate that Black legislators are more likely to talk about civil rights, and they employ significantly more symbolic references when they do. This symbolism is linked to an increase in Black voter turnout as well as changes in the evaluations of Black constituents, underscoring that symbolic responsiveness is an important facet of representation for African Americans.