Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Counties with large enslaved populations before the Civil War are home today to voters more likely to support racist candidates.
After a pivotal primary weekend for this year’s presidential elections, many are wondering how Donald Trump was able to win South Carolina. It’s a Deep South, Bible Belt state, packed with evangelical voters—and this just days after His Holiness questioned Trump’s Christianity.
Given the large margin by which Trump conquered South Carolina, it’s safe to say that voters there are influenced by more than just what their Bible tells them. As it turns out, white voters in the state, like others across the South, are also heavily moved by what white supremacy tells them, as it’s been dating all the way back to slavery. This is particularly true in counties that had the largest concentrations of slaves across the South—the “Black Belt”—in the 19th century, according to a new study published in the Journal of Politics by the Harvard and Stanford political scientists Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen.
In “The Political Legacy of American Slavery,” these researchers found that the South’s centuries-old maintenance of a slavery/plantation-based economy have a “direct impact” on Southern whites’ heavy GOP identification and attitudes toward African Americans today.
Using 1860 Census population data combined with more recent data from sources including the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), the researchers charted political activity in the South since slavery ended. They found that the counties that had higher enslaved populations before the Civil War are today populated by white voters who are more likely to oppose race-based policies such as affirmative action. This has driven white voters in these areas to consistently vote for presidential candidates who’ve taken racist stances, from Reconstruction to George Wallace in 1968. This possibly explains Trump’s Southern triumphs today.
From the report:
The prevalence of slavery, coupled with the shock of its removal, created strong incentives for Black Belt whites to try to preserve both their political and economic power by promoting racially targeted violence, anti-black norms, and, to the extent legally possible, racist institutions. These reinforced racial and political beliefs about black subjugation within the Southern Black Belts, which, via institutional path dependence and intergenerational socialization, have persisted to the present day. ... Thus, although racism was prevalent across the high- slave and low-slave South in the antebellum period, these areas diverge greatly in terms of both institutionalized and socially enforced racism around the time of the Civil War, specifically the period of Redemption that followed Reconstruction.
South Carolina was hardly a given for Trump. The state has gone through a lot of racial turbulence of late, suffering one of the most vicious racially motivated terrorist attacks in U.S. history as well as the cathartic removal of the Confederate flag from state capital grounds. Despite the state’s projecting an air of healing and harmony, however, these events may have actually driven white voters to the candidate who makes the most racist remarks, Trump. Public Policy Polling noted that 70 percent of Trump’s supporters in South Carolina want the Confederate flag back up, while 38 percent wish the South won the Civil War.
This helps explain how a state filled with large pockets of poor, conservative farmers would turn up for a blowhard, billionaire New Yorker. And slavery’s legacy may have effects well beyond just how people vote in presidential elections. The report’s authors say that, in light of their findings, the “field of political behavior could benefit from exploring other potential relationships between historical forces and contemporary attitudes.”
That would be great. But when it comes to politics, conservatives seem to only want to view contemporary attitudes based on present forces. In the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts gutted the Voting Rights Act by arguing that today’s South should not be scrutinized for sins of its Jim Crow past. Similarly, Virginia’s election board has asked a federal court to toss out any evidence of discrimination that happened before 1965 in a voter ID case playing out right now.
The Nation’s Ari Berman thoroughly lays out how Southern states have been responsible for a great deal of discrimination at the polls (and beyond) since 1965 in his recently released book Give us the Ballot. One effect of all of these decades of racism is that there are voters today still willing to support candidates pushing ultraconservative stances on key policy issues like immigration, labor, and religion.
Taking all of that into account, it’s clearer how Trump triumphed in evangelical South Carolina. In some places in the South, racism is still the dominant religion.