Study: Modern Racists Live in the Legacy of Slavery

Study maps out where the largest concentrations of racists live and finds links to slavery past.

By Chris Hoenig

Study reveals linger racism in the heart of where slavery was most prevalent.Is modern racism one of the lasting effects of slavery? A new study suggests so.

University of Rochester researchers found that white Southerners who have negative attitudes toward Blacks are more concentrated in areas that were home to slave plantations a century and a half ago. Neighbors who live on properties that don’t have a history of slavery don’t carry the same racist attitudes, according to the data.

The research team polled more than 39,000 whites across the South and found that strong racial resentment permeated strongest in areas where cotton plantations existed in the 1860s. The data also revealed political links: Those who expressed negative attitudes toward Blacks also had a negative opinion of affirmative action and were less likely to identify as a Democrat.

“In political circles, the South’s political conservatism is often credited to ‘Southern exceptionalism,’” study co-author Matthew Blackwell said. “But the data show that such modern-day political differences primarily rise from the historical presence of many slaves.” Specifically, for every 20 percent increase in the percentage of slaves in a county before the Civil War, today’s residents were about 3 percent less likely to identify as a Democrat or support affirmative action.

Overall, counties that participated in slavery were at least 15 percentage points less Democrat than Southern counties where slaves made up less than 3 percent of the population. When those low-slavery counties were compared to counties in the North that had similar population, geography and farm-land value, the political makeup was also found to have very few differences.

Explaining the Endurance of Racism

Why do residents who are more than 150 years removed from slavery continue to have racist attitudes? The study’s authors believe the continued exploitation of Blacks into the 20th century plays a significant role.

“Before mechanization, cotton was not really economically viable without massive amounts of cheap labor,” explains Maya Sen. When formal slavery was outlawed after the Civil War, powerful landowners turned to violence and Jim Crow–era laws. “Whereas slavery only required a majority of [powerful] whites in the state to support it,” Sen says, “widespread repression and political violence required the support and involvement of entire communities.”

The violence that plagued the South can also be tied to a county-by-county comparison of slavery. In the first 65 years after the Civil War, lynching was most common in areas that had the highest slave populations. “For the average Southern county, this would represent a 20 percent increase in the rate of lynchings during this time period,” says Blackwell.

The authors presented an in-depth look at their findings at the Politics of Race, Immigration, and Ethnicity Consortium at the University of California, Riverside on Sept. 27.

Recommended Articles


  • The study is interesting but seems as though this is an excuse for vile behavior. What is the excuse of racists who reside in the Northern region of the country and those who do not live in areas where there were plantations? Racism is so prevalent in this country and it is accepted by Whites, some African American or as I call us Brown people, as well as Latino, Hispanics, Caribbean’s and most if not every ethnic group who visit or reside in this country. It is better to be anything but what I call Brown. It is “ok” to discriminate against brown people and it is disgusting. It is systemic and engrained in the fiber of this country. Where is the data on this?

  • Racism is alive and well in the US. So what else is new? I grew up in the South and remember back in the 1950’s when black folks still had to step off the sidewalk when a white person walked by. I was teaching at the University of Florida in the 1970’s when a branch of the US Dept of Agriculture came to Gainesville preaching agriculture monderlization — cotton and sharecropping were outdated, they said, and the future of agriculture was cattle, corn, timber and soybeans. Displaced sharecroppers could move to the cities where there were jobs in industries.
    So now, if you drive through the South, you see cattle, timber, corn and soybeans on the farms. All mechanized. You used to be able to see lots of abandoned sharecropper shacks as well.The sharecropper shacks are gone but the modern crops are thriving.
    Where did the former sharecroppers go? To the cities, both in the South and the North, and the West as well. But where have the industries gone that were supposed to hire them? Offshore, for the most part. China, etc. and we have lots of displaced black folks who live on welfare and crime incomes ‘cuz there aren’t that many jobs for ’em. These displaced sharcroppers and their descendents — up to the third or fourth generation now – are for the most part living on welfare (mostly women) or in prison (lots of black guys in there for drug-related crimes, or crimes related to making some money – which include holdups, etc.) Just look at Detroit. And Republicans – northern and southern- are seeking to make if much harder for them to votes, etc.
    I could go on and on.

  • Why are there people out there that still believe welfare is synonymous with poor black, crime ridden, and uneducated? There has been NUMEROUS reports throughout the years (by white researchers) detailing that the majority of the people living on welfare is NOT blacks. Why when the discussion of welfare comes up, the first thing mentioned is poor blacks? As if no other group of people participate in welfare. Just aggravating and disappointing.

    • White American does not want to accept the truth. Minorities make great scapegoats for the ‘ills’ of our country. It is a very dangerous minds-set and game, especially when you are dealing with the lives of human beings, American human beings.

  • Those residents who are more than 150 years removed from slavery who continue to have racist ideas obviously need a lot more than 150 years to overcome what is strongly entrenched in them.
    And then there are some who could live a thousand years and time would make absolutely no difference. They may even act different outwardly but inside racism is still festering, alive and well but dormant and just still waiting for the opportune time to rear its ugly head only once again.

  • I believe the research was skewed by the objectives of the research. There are only racists people in the South. That seems strange. There are events happening everyday around the country. My father was white/native American and my mother was Japanese. My mom and I were born in Japan. We moved to South Carolina when I was 5 years old and I remember telling me that all Japanese should died when they dropped the atom bombs. After serving 33 years in the U.S. Navy and visiting many different countries and really seeing what poverty is, my views are based on individuals taking responsibility for their actions. Everyone can be exceptional by working hard and taking care of their family. The researcher just wanted to prove Southerners are racist. I believe they only proved how narrow minded they are.

  • Well I declare, I’m just shocked.

    Maybe more concentrated, but it’s all over. However, I must say I found San Francisco a different story. The only place I lived where I felt my credit rating and income counted more (when looking for a place to live) than the color of my skin. Ten glorious years.

    And then I moved south…

  • A friend in eastern Central Florida shared a news story with me this morning from the Orlando area TV station–the KKK is openly advertising, door to door, in Rockledge and other towns.
    Practicing racism seems to be easier for some folks, than self-awareness and personal growth.

  • And other studies show that those who are more rigid in their thinking are more likely to be racist, Republican, conservative, religiously intolerant, and less intelligent. It is hard for their brains to handle ideas beyond a narrow scope. Mentally, they are most comfortable with narrowly defined boundaries of perception.

  • I’m not sure what this article is trying to say that we didn’t already know. I agree with the others, racism is alive and well in America. Always been that way and will always be that way. It’s as American as apple pie and should not come as a surprise to anyone with more than a double digit IQ that even 150 years after the civil war it continues. Those who ever believed we were in a post racial society were delusional.

  • 150 years removed from slavery, not from outright discrimination. Back of the bus, back door only, white only toilets. Get off the sidewalk for a white. Separate but equal. So not as surprising as some seem to think.

« Previous Article     Next Article »