Yes, that slavery.
Put another way, this premise says Southerners hailing from counties ruled by plantation economies in the days of Lincoln are more likely to resemble our aforementioned Southerners in the days of Obama. Once an adherent to white-only rule and black inferiority, always an adherent to white-only rule and black inferiority, it goes.
This isn’t my premise (thank the Lord). It comes from researchers at the University of Rochester who boldly claim to have broken new ground about the political world in which we Southerners live.
I’m trying to be nice.
They wrote: “Slavery continues to affect how Southern whites identify politically, how they feel about race-coded policy issues, and how they perceive African Americans.”
And they wrote: “Our core hypothesis is that the more conservative nature of the Black Belt is in part a direct consequence of the historical prevalence of slavery in this area. We are motivated by an emerging literature showing that the historical legacy of slavery can be felt today in other contexts.”
And they wrote: “We hypothesize that the abolition slavery in 1865 was a cataclysmic event that undermined Southern whites’ political and economic power.”
The South, our home, is America’s Petri dish, an eternal testing ground for all things racial. Libraries overflow with historians’ examinations about what makes us tick: Why we vote as we do, why we think as we do, why we were what we were and what we are today. To think there are still-uncovered nuggets about the South’s historic peculiarities is absurd.
It’s our fault, of course. The Southern states sold their souls to an inhuman economic system of bondage and then spent a century treating descendants of their former chattel like unworthy beings. Had the South’s forefathers chosen a different path, this wouldn’t be a topic today. In many ways, our crosses to bear are still in place.
In fairness, I’ll give the authors of the Rochester report, “The Political Legacy of American Slavery,” mild credit for employing deep statistical research. They’ve done their homework, though their report is neither light reading nor “popular history” that uses no footnotes for critics to fact-check. It is 48 pages of dense, intense, Ph.D.-level writing that often is literary Ambien.
If anything, what they’ve done is used numbers to codify what Southerners and the best historians have long known: That the South was indeed affected — morally, politically, economically, educationally — by slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, voting-rights suppression, white supremacy and political demagogues. That many public school systems, including Calhoun County’s and Anniston’s, remain under the Lee v. Macon ruling says a great deal about where the region is today.
The Rochester researchers waste a few thousand words detailing their findings about the political differences between Southern counties that were dominated by plantation economy (i.e., slave labor) and those that were not (i.e., small farms with no slave labor). But in 1940, historian W.J. Cash wrote about how the region’s progress “was being accomplished so completely within the framework of the past that the plantation remained the single great basic social and economic pattern of the South — as much in industry as on the land.”
In other words, it is no revelation that post-war Southerners reinvented their economy on the only model they knew — one in which labor (blacks and poor whites) was a vital commodity given few basic human rights. It is no revelation that white Southerners used politics to protect that way of life and, by and large, retained their views on race. Telling us that places such as the Mississippi Delta and Alabama’s Black Belt are affected more by slavery’s distant relics than the hill country of eastern Tennessee isn’t telling us much. And it is no revelation that white Southerners leap-frogged from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party en masse in the 1960s as Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs were put in place.
(A side note: In 1860, Calhoun County’s slave population was 20.2 percent. Talladega County’s was almost twice that at 37.7 percent. Nearby, Randolph County’s was only 9.5 percent. Can you say political sentiments and race relations differ widely in those counties today based on statistics from yesteryear?)
The South is what it is, pleasant and damnable, and the reasons are well known. The best among us are learning from that past and working on the future. Statistics often leave that part out, uncomfortably so.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.