James Goodman, Staff writer 7:29 a.m. EDT October 6, 2013
The American public’s attitudes about race have been the subject of any number of books, but three University of Rochester political scientists are presenting a study that puts the focus back on slavery.
The three — Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen — looked at the 1860 U.S. census in the South to determine where there were concentrations of slaves and then looked at recent public opinion polls.
What they found is that counties in the pre-Civil War South, where slaves often made up a sizable percentage of the population, harbor more racial resentment today than counties that had a population with a low percentage of slaves.
While the authors don’t dismiss other factors that can shape views, they present a case for linking the institution of slavery to the mindset of whites in the South today, at a time when racial issues have resurfaced there and elsewhere.
“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,” write the authors in a summary of their 52-page study.
Importance of past
A recent posting about the study on The Huffington Post website generated more than 3,400 comments — and a host of complaining calls to UR.
“There is a strong division and a strong polarization in the way people react,” said Blackwell. “You can have two comments that are juxtaposed against each other — one that says these results are obvious and one that says these results are obviously wrong.”
Sen noted how their study, “The Political Legacy of American Slavery,” touched a sensitive nerve.
Maya Sen(Photo: University of Rochester/Brandon Vick)
“We, as Americans, don’t want to be shackled by the past. One of the things we are suggesting in the study is that things that happened long ago continue to affect us today,” she said.
Beginning with Sen’s presentation in late September at the University of California at Riverside, the authors are appearing at Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University and Yale University.
Reactions from experts on slavery and civil rights were generally favorable, though questions were raised.
“The study seems sound to me, as far as it goes, and it confirms a general observation that white racial attitudes and political identification are more conservative in the deep South than elsewhere,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson, who is a professor emeritus at Princeton University.
But McPherson raises the question of whether racial attitudes of whites in the counties studied might be more influenced by the high concentration of African-Americans living in these areas today.
A failure to pay adequate attention to how the post-Civil War South developed is also found in other critiques.
But the study’s relevance to the present was noted by the Rev. Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.
“This paper helps explain why the ink was not dry on the June 2013 (Supreme Court) ruling about the Voting Rights Act before Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas — all major slave-holding states — took immediate steps to suppress the black vote in their states,” McMickle said.
William J. Harris Sr., an instructor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said that, while the legacy of slavery, race and racism continue to play a role in the development of the nation, quantitative analysis has limitations.
“Racial demographics or economic systems alone cannot be used to explain a community’s actions at a given time, let alone a century and a half later,” Harris said.
Method of analysis
The three authors, all assistant professors in political science at UR skilled in the use of statistics, decided to go ahead with the study early this year.
For starters, the authors — using the 1860 census — looked at the percentage of the population that was slaves in 1,251 counties in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
They then looked at opinion polling data of more than 39,000 white Southerners from 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2,011 compiled by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which does Internet polling.
Counties that in 1860 had a population with a high percentage of slaves were most likely now to have a white population showing racial resentment. The question for measuring resentment is whether the person polled agreed with the statement that generations of slavery and discrimination make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower classes. Disagreement with the statement indicated resentment.
The white population in counties that once had a high percentage of slaves was also more likely to be Republican than in Southern counties that had lower concentrations of slaves. And the white population in counties that had a high percentage of slaves was more likely to be opposed to affirmative action.
About 90 of the counties in the South had pre-Civil War slave populations less than 3 percent and had views similar to some counties in the North — an example being Campbell County, Ky., in the South having similar views as Perry County, Ind.
“Taken together, these results are clear. Slave prevalence in 1860 has an effect on the political attitudes of Southern whites today,” says the study.
The study is limited in focus to the South, as the authors point out in defining the scope of their research.
Richard Newman, who teaches history at Rochester Institute of Technology, said that the authors provide quantitative evidence of the “slavery effect” on American society.
“But we should not overlook the fact that racism remains a national problem,” Newman said.
Many of the counties in the study that had a large percentage of slaves now have a sizable African-American population, but the history of slavery continues to be a factor, Blackwell said.
Even with two Southern counties that today have the same percentage of African-Americans, the one that in 1860 had more slaves currently shows more racial resentment.
Migration patterns are also taken into account by the paper and would not affect the study’s findings, Blackwell said.
The paper takes note of how after the Civil War — and the end of slavery — blacks continued to be oppressed by a tenant farming system that made them beholden to white landowners. Segregation also took hold.
Another sign of racial hostility toward blacks was the high incidence of lynching in the South.
But the authors point to the importance of slavery shaping opinions that were handed down.
“How would pre-Civil War slavery directly affect attitudes today? We hypothesize that the abolition of slavery in 1865 was a cataclysmic event that undermined Southern whites’ political and economic power,” says the study.
The Southern white elite, however, continued to promote anti-black sentiments.
“These racially hostile norms were subsequently passed down through generations, resulting in contemporary anti-black attitudes that can still be felt today,” says the study.
Emilye Crosby, who teaches civil rights and African-American history at the State University College at Geneseo, said that at the heart of the study’s argument is that political attitudes of some whites in the South are influenced by slavery.
She agrees that to some extent that has been the case, but questions whether slavery is as predictive as the study suggests.
“I think my biggest concern with the paper is the emphasis that ‘attitudes’ or ‘feelings’ were passed down through the generations without sufficient acknowledgment of institutionalized racism and the way it would fuel, reinforce attitudes over generations,” she said.