The Political Legacy of American Slavery

That is a new paper (pdf) by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen, here is the abstract:

We show that contemporary differences in political attitudes across counties in the American South trace their origins back to the influence of slavery’s
prevalence more than 150 years ago. Whites who currently live in Southern counties that had high shares of slaves population in 1860 are less likely to identify as Democrat, more likely to oppose affirmative action policies, and more likely to express racial resentment toward blacks. These results are robust to accounting for a variety of attributes, including contemporary shares of black population, urban-rural differences, and Civil War destruction. Moreover, the results strengthen when we instrument for the prevalence of slavery using measures of the agricultural suitability to grow cotton. To explain our results, we offer a theory in which political and racial attitudes were shaped historically by the incentives of Southern whites to propagate racist institutions and norms in areas like the “Black Belt” that had high shares of recently emancipated slaves in the decades after 1865. We argue that these attitudes have, to some degree, been passed down locally from one generation to the next.


I live in Australia however I was always under the impression that it was the Republicans who opposed slavery and the Democrats opposed racial equality until the 1960's, but then I may be wrong.

You're mostly correct (the picture began to complicate quite a bit earlier than the 1960's), but I assume that the paper is talking about contemporary party identification.

"I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me." is how the shift was widely rationalized.

The Southern Strategy is a fairly well documented explanation -

'In American politics, the Southern strategy refers to a Republican Party strategy of gaining political support for certain candidates in the Southern United States by appealing to racism against African Americans.[1][2][3][4][5]

Though the "Solid South" had been a longtime Democratic Party stronghold due to the Democratic Party's defense of slavery before the American Civil War and segregation for a century thereafter, many white Southern Democrats stopped supporting the party following the civil rights plank of the Democratic campaign in 1948 (triggering the Dixiecrats), the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and desegregation.

The strategy was first adopted under future Republican President Richard Nixon and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater[6][7] in the late 1960s.[8] The strategy was successful in winning 5 formerly Confederate states in both the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections. It contributed to the electoral realignment of some Southern states to the Republican Party, but at the expense of losing more than 90 percent of black voters to the Democratic Party. As the twentieth century came to a close, the Republican Party began trying to appeal again to black voters, though with little success.[8]

In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman acknowledged the Southern strategy and formally apologized to the NAACP for ignoring the black vote in the previous century.'

See also 'yellow dog Democrat' and how the term originated - 'Yellow Dog Democrats was a political term applied to voters in the Southern United States who voted solely for Democratic candidates, with the term commencing in the late 19th century. These voters would allegedly "vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican".'

Lee Awater, a man born in Atlanta, Georgia, knew the term well, successfully doing his best to change such voters to the Republican party.

One thing to temper this-- note that Republicans started losing the black vote even during Woodrow Wilson's time (who then said that black people had made a mistake if they voted for him expecting anything). The Republican trend in the black vote (and the white vote in the South) was for the most part a steady 80 year trend (with a blip around the Goldwater nomination). It overstates things to credit it all to a 1960s Southern Strategy.

While blacks in the north certainly moved to the Democratic Party more quickly, even in the segregated South they started voting for Democrats long before 1950. Since the Democrats were going to win anyway, lots of blacks preferred to have a vote in the only election that mattered, the primary-- especially since in some states (Tennessee and Crump's Memphis is one notable example) Democratic party bosses were content to let Democratic Party voting blacks vote in some sense so long as they didn't upset the status quo, and people did in exchange for somewhat better treatment than if they were for the permanent opposition. In addition, some southern Republican parties had become "lily white" after Jim Crow was introduced. (See for example the NC GOP, which had lots of support in mountain anti-Civil War counties among whites, after the Josephus Daniels race baiting campaign in the early 20th century brought in the end of mass black voting and Jim Crow, destroying the GOP Fusion government.) (See V.O. Key's classic Southern Politics in State and Nation for details about all the states.)

Technically, The Southern Strategy appealed to "states rights" supporters. It was not necessarily racist in it's motivations, but still purely political.

The "state's rights" to impose segregation.
Any discussion of "state's rights" always need to complete the equation by asking the state's right to what? What is the particular claimed prerogative of the state that is being impacted? In the 50s and 60s, it was legal segregation in schools and public accommodations and the suppression of black voting. The (white) state wanted the 'right' to continue a campaign of discrimination and disenfranchisement against blacks.
In the 1860s, the only 'state right' at issue was slavery - as noted in the secession speeches of the Confederacy.

Democrats are the only ones who oppose racial equality these days... (Affirmative action etc)

"but I assume that the paper is talking about contemporary party identification."

Contemporary yes but the paper seems to argue that the party identification was inherited and therefore those who were surveyed must have had Republican leaning ancestors who voted Democrat in the period through to the 1960s' then changed allegiance to the Republicans after racial discrimination was outlawed. That's how I read it anyway.

Actually, the paper specifically doesn't use party registration, but uses voting and various methods of "identification" (including answers to polls) instead simply because in these areas there are so many people, primarily the elderly at this point, that stay registered with the Democratic Party because of their ancestors and the Civil War but mostly vote Republican.

Not incidentally, that's why the Republicans in NC, having finally won control of state government for the first time since Reconstruction, ended straight-ticket voting in their recent laws. A decent number of these people would vote Democratic straight ticket for ancestral loyalty and then override it in each race where they actually paid attention to the candidates. The NC GOP feels that they can win more down ticket races by trying to end that. Straight ticket voting was only introduced in NC for the same reason-- attempts to prevent the ticket splitting of voting GOP in national (or even state) races but Democratic locally. (Which didn't stop NC from voting Hoover in 1928, right after the straight ticket was brought in to prevent that.)

Thanks for the background. As usual, you're very informative.

What is called "affirmative action" is not about racial equality; it is a discussion of which policies promote non-minorities having the benefits of diversity in education and to what extent it is Constitutional to favor minorities' admittance to achieve this goal. To the extent that anti-Black sentiment affect this debate it would be through disagreement that diversity IS a benefit to non-minorities or dislike of seeing some Blacks benefit as a side effect of this goal.

You seem to assume that Affirmative Action actually helps those who are supposed to profit from it. Only than would your argument work.
But it seems fairly obvious that AA is among the regulations that while well intended actually hurt the groups they are aimed at in the long run. (Rather similar to most developement aid.)

You're evidently unaware that affirmative action at universities actually discriminates against minorities in favor of whites and other minorities.

We are unaware since it is not true.


"discriminates against minorities in favor of whites and other minorities."

Now there's a sentence that makes sense.

AA helps white applicants, helps black applicants, and latinos (and others) - to the detriment of Asians.

Sorry, wrong link:

The positive impact which AA has on white university applicants is strongest at the more elite universities.

You're right, but the two parties switched sides on civil rights during the mid-20th century. Today, the Republican party is the party of the South while the Democrats are the party of the north.

What are the effect sizes. They should be mentioned in the abstract. I'm not going to trawl through the paper for them. For example, how much more likely whites in former slave counties are to oppose affirmative action or to vote Republican, compared to, say, whites from Northern counties with the same % of blacks and the same wealth level?

What's annoying about this paper, and similar social-science papers, is forget effect sizes, they will consider a match of mere effect-sign or effect-direction to be a vindication of their theory.

Problem is, they have no underlying novel theory as to how much of an effect size should be, in the first place. so almost anything counts as evidence (in their book) that they are right.

What would you rather they do?

Have you a working model of the human brain, that lets you Fermi-problem estimate the effect size?

Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and was opposed by (mostly) Democrats who favoured, some combination of states' rights and/or slavery. The two issues were entirely intertwined. Recently it has been fashionable for southerners (mostly) to claim that the Confederacy was not about preserving slavery. Likewise, the modern Republican party is very proud of its anti-slavery heritage, but does not talk much about the so-called Southern Strategy.

It's not "recently" - it dominated historiography between Reconstruction and the 1960s, and survived only by walling itself off from developments in academic historical schools since.

Sorry if this is a repost. A shorter version of what I originally wrote would be:

See the wikipedia page on Nixon's Southern Strategy.

It must be tricky to unconfound the effects of having "high shares of slaves" in 1860 and having a high proportion of blacks for much of the time since 1860. How did they do it?

Also, how do they deal with southern cities that are significantly/majority recent immigrants, like Atlanta or Charlotte?

Atlanta and Charlotte are not in the "Black Belt". The major plantation belt is still predominately populated by African-Americans. It runs from Coastal Plain Virginia/Maryland down the coastal plain then west from Savannah-Montgomery-Jackson then up the Mississippi valley into Missouri.

Look for the wide geographic spread of green on this map of the last census.

The paper is ungated. Read and see.

Silly dearieme, the purpose of this paper isn't to further some sort of academic pursuit of knowledge, it is to smear the Republican party with anti-historical nonsense. Confounding effects are intentional.

A recent blog post speaks to those institutions of "keep 'em in their place" maintenance. Lynchings are the most drammatic example of such institutions, and lynchings WERE highly institutionalized. Though there WERE cases of a few good old boys getting drunk and sneaking a prisoner out of jail and stringing them up, there were more cases of very visible and quite deliberate public lynchings.

It is mainly about the formation/persistence of anti-Black attitudes and institutions until about 1960. I has little explanation for HOW this was transformed into contemporary political attitudes and party affiliation.

Aren't some southern cities completely overrun by former northerners now. The authors made no mention of how they dealt with population shifts which have been considerable since the 1860s.

What I wonder is, does a study of this nature have any policy implications at all? Or any novel insights to our understanding of blacks & party affiliation? Or is this just cute methods applied to an easily available dataset on a topic of sensationalist interest?

I can't but help think the authors started out thinking, "OK what study topic will get us a good Newspaper Headline".

"Whites with slave-owner ancestors more likely to be Republican"? An editors delight!

A lot of academics are obsessed with identifying racism in novel ways (e.g. papers looking for racial voting in the Obama elections, notably a 50 pager by Simon Jackman and some co-authors). Same sort of thing as this one - nothing theoretically interesting (what do we learn here, exactly?) and no real way to know if it's spurious correlation or not. Great, they've controlled for stuff, but you can't control for the real problems with this sort of thing. People have slightly different average attitudes in particular places, based on discrete measurement scales with limited options for people to choose; we know these places are conservative in general and there's random variation in conservatism across counties. People only have 2-3 options on a polling scale (really opposed vs. opposed). It's an exercise in futility to try to attribute meaning to small differences in these things, let alone small difference based on things that happened multiple generations ago with people whose families may or may not still be in the county. It's kind of clever, but flawed and trivial at the same time, which is a sadly decent summary of a lot of academic work these days. There's no attempt to advance knowledge of any sort, beyond knowledge of what I should be writing if I was responding rationally to incentives. Now back to that political science phd...

At the county level, the southern counties well suited to agriculture in 1860 may remain well-suited to agriculture today. The population shifts took place elsewhere.

This was my first thought. Population movements matter. It could be that counties that had different levels experienced different migration patterns than other counties. I don't know if they address it (too lazy), but they might also be selecting for general ruralness.

Random thoughts: I've seen writing(s) which I can't remember now arguing that the big landowners were paternalistic and protected "their" blacks from the violence of the lower class whites.
The economics of tobacco, particularly in NC, seem to be different than cotton.
Suitability for a crop changes over time. For example, rice was big in coastal SC in antebellum times, moved to the "prairie rice" areas of LA and AR around 1890. The boll weevil in the early 20th century changed some of the economics of cotton. Their measure of cotton suitability is based on late 20th century.
Personally I'd lean to a more economic explanation. In that regard, I recommend the James Agee "Cotton Tenants" (just out--the first draft of his "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"). It's on white tenants, but the economics work the same as for blacks.

Those are some good researchers, but some dubious research. I do not see how proper controls could be generated.

A smart guy once said that whites in the north accept blacks as equals as long as they don't have to be near them. Whites in the south will accept blacks near them as long as they don't have to accept them as equals. Having spent my life equally between the two regions, I think this is correct. It is also the basis of the long running cold civil war between northern whites and southern whites for the last 150 years.

Growing up in North Carolina and being married to a Michigan girl I think this is spot on. There is a closeness between whites and blacks in the South that you don't get in the North, but there is also a clear idea that they are separate communities.

I had a similar conversation recently with someone from Mississippi who went for a job interview at a university in Wisconsin. She made the exact same observation. A black professor at the school actually complained about his kids not being very welcome in the local schools despite this being a quite liberal area.

A friend visited me when I was in Virginia and he was shocked by the mixing of races. He had never been south of New York and just assumed the south was heavily segregated. At dinner at a nice restaurant he leaned forward and whispered, "I think there are more black people in this restaurant than in my entire town." He was probably right. Having been all over now, I notice it when I travel north. New England feels much whiter than the statistics say and that's due to the physical separation.

I notice that too. I live in Atlanta, and the there are many mixed race neighborhoods. The presence of blacks in a particular area is not an automatic indication of a high crime rate, as is maybe assumed in a northern city, where blacks are confined to ghettos (ie south side of Chicago).

I think there is also a stronger sense of white identity in the south, maybe as a way of asserting identity in lieu of physical separation. Country music is an example of this. How do you think white superiority, or at least white identity, is asserted in the South?

Concerning the distinctions in Northern and Southern race relations you observe: a native South Carolinian (whose mother hailed from New York state), I heard the same sage observation from a woman from around Charleston about thirty years ago. This was before my decade+ in Westchester Co., NY, and County of Cook, IL (whose levels of segregation REALLY wowed me): I can also confess that many whites in the field of scholarly publishing I was in for much of this time looked upon me as a typical "slow Southerner", whereas blacks I met sometimes looked at me almost fraternally when they heard me speak. When I returned South in the late 90s, I settled in Cary, NC, which in outlying counties and towns is regarded as "Community of Arrogant Relocated Yankees", even though thirty years ago it was a quaint quiet neighbor of Raleigh's, apparently.

Concerning New England: last I looked, the three whitest states in the US are, from left to right and west to east, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine (all more than 90% white, and I think VT is close to 95% white). In my youth (b. 1958) South Carolina was approximately 50% white/black. I think by 2010 figures, SC is now 28% black, with an increasing latino and Asian presence. I haven't worked on a farm since high school, but the sense I gain is that blacks simply don't work in agriculture any longer, or more certainly much latino labor has displaced a lot of black agricultural labor.

Concerning Southern counties: the Democratic Party has few bases left in SC (lowcountry Charleston area and pockets generally E of the I-95 corridor, with the exception of Richland Co./Columbia), but in one small rural county, it is the local Democratic Party machine (sort of a Yellow Dog franchise) that maintains political control no matter how many whites vote Republican: and the curious thing is, these Democrats (who hosted Sen. Obama himself in Aug 2007) to this day do not permit anyone, white or black, latino or Asian, to vote for any board of education members at either the county level or in the remaining local districts, the only county in SC without a single elected school board member.

Or, is it just a way for Northerners to believe they are superior because they'd be very cosmopolitan if only they ever had to be?

Liberals are hypocrites, who knew?

Do these "scholars" know what the "blackbelt" actually is - soils, not people.

Next: "Bible Belt Fundamentalism and racial attitudes - by counties?

This kind of "work" will never make MOOCs!

Actually, although 'blackbelt' refers to the dirt, it aptly conforms with population.

There was another recently (last few years) that showed that where someone lived, in particular rural versus urban or industrial (and former industrial) versus not, did very well as predicting voting.

The author was interviewed on EconTalk. He study showed that the voting effects lasted through generations and applied to people who moved into a particular area. Find the interview, it's fascinating.

Or maybe the more blacks you are around the more racist your attitudes toward them. But I can see how applying Occam's Rube Goldberg Machine one could come up with a theory that it has more to do with what the ghosts of your relatives from 150 years ago thought. We need more studies into how what the ghosts of one's distant relatives thoughts influences contemporary thinking. It's bound to be applicable in more areas than just this one. For instance, Germans are bound to stay Nazis for at least another 80 years. Why don't we invade them now and run their country?

There are plenty of whites still alive today who enforced segregation laws. And those laws are obviously the descendants of slavery.

The political legacy of American slavery is that we never stop talking about the political legacy of American slavery.

In presidential elections in the 2000s, it has been readily observable that the correlate of diversity with how white voters choose to vote tends depends on who are the diverse. The more Asians in a state, the more whites vote Democratic. The more blacks in a state, the more whites vote Republican. Hispanics fall in the middle. Any correlation with the crime rates of Asians, Hispanics, and blacks is of course wholly coincidental.

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