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Reconceptualizing Political Knowledge: Race, Ethnicity, and Carceral Violence

  • Cathy J. Cohen and Matthew D. Luttig


What is political knowledge? We argue that the traditional measure of political knowledge is limited, as it represents one domain of facts that people should know about American politics. This domain of knowledge is rooted in the liberal-democratic face of the state and neglects other political knowledge generated from the carceral face of the state. We argue that knowledge of carceral violence, especially against African Americans, represents a separate domain of knowledge that is particularly relevant to marginalized communities, especially black youth. Once we include carceral violence in our measures of political knowledge, established patterns of whites having more political knowledge than Blacks are reversed. Using a novel measurement strategy and based on a nationally representative survey of over 2,000 young people, we find that knowledge of carceral violence is distinct from measures of what has been called general political knowledge. Finally, we find that knowledge of carceral violence has distinct correlates from the standard knowledge battery and its relationship to political participation varies by racial group but tends to depress the political participation of African Americans. Our findings raise the question of what comprises relevant and important political knowledge today and for which communities.



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A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.

*Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:

The authors thank the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network supported by the MacArthur Foundation who secured the data featured in the paper, as well as Matthew Motta and Jon Rogowski for providing comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.



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Perspectives on Politics
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