Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen
February 16, 2016
Forthcoming, Journal of Politics
We show that contemporary differences in political attitudes across counties in the American South in part trace their origins to slavery’s prevalence more than 150 years ago. Whites who currently live in Southern counties that had high shares of slaves in 1860 are more likely to identify as a Republican, oppose affirma- tive action, and express racial resentment and colder feelings toward blacks. These results cannot be explained by existing theories, including the theory of contem- porary racial threat. To explain these results, we offer evidence for a new theory involving the historical persistence of political and racial attitudes. Following the Civil War, Southern whites faced political and economic incentives to reinforce existing racist norms and institutions to maintain control over the newly free African-American population. This amplified local differences in racially con- servative political attitudes, which in turn have been passed down locally across generations. Our results challenge the interpretation of a vast literature on racial attitudes in the American South.
From the introduction:
In this paper, we show that the local prevalence of slavery—an institution that was abolished 150 years ago—has a detectable effect on present-day political attitudes in the American South. Drawing on a sample of more than 40,000 Southern whites and his- torical census records, we show that whites who currently live in counties that had high concentrations of slaves in 1860 are today on average more conservative and express colder feelings toward African Americans than whites who live elsewhere in the South. That is, the larger the number of slaves per capita in his or her county of residence in 1860, the greater the probability that a white Southerner today will identify as a Repub- lican, oppose affirmative action, and express attitudes indicating some level of “racial resentment.” We show that these differences are robust to accounting for a variety of factors, including geography and mid-19th century economic and social conditions. These results strengthen when we instrument for the prevalence of slavery using geo- graphic variation in cotton growing conditions.We consider several explanations for our results rooted in contemporary forces and find each to be inconsistent with the empirical evidence. For example, we con- sider the possibility that whites are simply more racially conservative when exposed to larger black populations—the central finding of the literature on racial threat (Key, 1949; Blalock, 1967; Blumer, 1958). However, when we estimate the direct effect of slavery on contemporary attitudes (Acharya, Blackwell and Sen, 2016), we find thatcontemporary shares of the black population explain little of slavery’s effects. We also test various other explanations, including the possibility that slavery’s effects are driven exclusively by 20th-century population shifts or income inequality between African Americans and whites. We find no evidence that these contemporary factors and the- ories of population sorting fully account for our results. Introducing individual-level and contextual covariates commonly used in the public opinion literature also does not explain away our finding.To explain our results, we instead propose a theory of the historical persistence of political attitudes. The evidence suggests that regional differences in contemporary white attitudes in part trace their origins to the late slave period and the time period after its collapse, with prior work suggesting that the fall of slavery was a cataclysmic event that undermined Southern whites’ political and economic power. For example, Key (1949), Du Bois (1935), and Foner (2011) (among others) have argued that the sudden enfranchisement of blacks was politically threatening to whites, who for cen- turies had enjoyed exclusive political power. In addition, the emancipation of Southern slaves undermined whites’ economic power by abruptly increasing black wages, raising labor costs, and threatening the viability of the Southern plantation economy (Ransom and Sutch, 2001a; Alston and Ferrie, 1993). Taken in tandem with massive preexist- ing racial hostility throughout the South, these political and economic changes gave Southern Black Belt elites an incentive to further promote existing anti-black sentiment in their local communities by encouraging violence towards blacks and racist attitudes and policies (Roithmayr, 2010). This amplified the differences in white racial hostility between former slaveholding areas and nonslaveholding areas, and intensified racially conservative political attitudes within the Black Belt. These have been passed down locally, one generation to the next.
From my point of view this is about cultural evolution. In this case we have persistence in the face of change. The environment in which culturally-based attitudes, ideas, and practices thrive or die is what I've have called the cultural reticulum:
I’ve long held the view that the environment to which cultural “things” must adapt is the human mind. But not the individual mind. Rather, a bunch of individual minds interacting in a group... Well, there’s network, and networks are all the rage these days. That in itself is a problem. “The cultural network” is just another network. “Web” and “mesh” have similar issues. I’ve also considered “matrix” and “lattice”. “Cultural matrix” does have possibilities, but it bumps into those SF movies about humans in vats living their lives in virtual reality.
Why not call this network of interacting minds a reticulum, the cultural reticulum?
H/t Tyler Cowen.