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

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.

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