It turns out the New South is a lot like the Old South.
A recent study by three political scientists at New York’s University of Rochester found a distinct link between contemporary racial attitudes by whites toward blacks, and the old “cotton belt” regions of the South, where slavery and the plantation economy were most prevalent. Conversely, in areas of the South where slavery was a minor presence, modern attitudes more closely track those of the North, the researchers found.
The study, which came out last month to little notice, also draws a distinct connection between the slave zones and modern political opposition to affirmative action, and a tendency to vote Republican:
We argue that emancipation was a cataclysmic event that undermined Southern whites’ political and economic power. Indeed … the sudden enfranchisement of blacks after the Civil War was politically threatening to whites, who for centuries had enjoyed exclusive political power. In addition, the sudden emancipation of blacks substantially undermined whites’ economic power by producing an abrupt increase in black wages, threatening the viability of the plantation economy.
Taken together, these political and economic changes gave the Southern white elite an incentive to promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs, and, to the extent legally possible, the institutionalization of racist policies such as Jim Crow laws. These incentives were obviously more pronounced in areas, such as the “Black Belt,” that had large proportions of newly freed slaves. This motivates our hypothesis that the prevalence of slavery in the years just before it was abolished is a predictor of whites’ attitudes towards blacks, and their political attitudes more generally.
“Slavery does not explain all forms of current day racism,” Avidit Acharya, who conducted the study along with Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen, said on the college website. “But the data clearly demonstrates that the legacy of the plantation economy and its reliance on the forced labor of African Americans continues to exacerbate racial bias in the Deep South.”
And it’s somewhat hereditary, with new generations reflecting the racial and social attitudes of their parents, the report says.
In announcing the study last month, the University of Rochester said the researchers “considered whether there could be alternative explanations for their findings.”
For example, they looked at whether whites who live around larger black populations have more negative racial attitudes—- what’s known as the “theory of racial threat.” But they found that share of black population actually predicts warmer attitudes toward blacks among whites once slavery is accounted for.
They also considered whether what they found was related to slavery being more prevalent in rural areas, which tend to be more conservative than urban areas, or whether it had something to do with Civil War destruction, or with whites holding particular racial attitudes migrating to areas with others of like mind. But again, those hypotheses did not hold up to scrutiny.
The study also compared Southern counties with very few slaves in 1860 to non-Southern counties with no slaves in the same period. It found very little difference.
“Thus, in the absence of localized slavery, it appears that the South would have had a distribution of present-day political beliefs indistinguishable from comparable parts of the North,” the authors write. “This provides evidence that the effect that we see comes primarily from the local presence of many slaves, rather than state laws permitting the ownership of slaves.”
Another aspect to explore: the relationship between the slavery zones and the current tea party power base. But at the very least, the study shows that the legacy of “the peculiar institution” still echoes through the political culture.