Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In their rhetoric, the convicted mass murderer and the president-elect tapped the same deep strain of American racism.
The federal prosecutors who successfully got Dylann Roof convicted on all 33 counts of hate crimes and murder based much of their argument on the online manifesto the white supremacist posted shortly before he killed nine African Americans at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 15, 2015.
As Jamelle Bouie accurately noted in Slate yesterday, the sentiments Roof expressed in this document often mirror the ones that launched Donald Trump to the White House. One passage on “Hispanics” in Roof’s manifesto could have been lifted out of a Trump speech: “Hispanics are obviously a huge problem for Americans,” reads Roof’s document. “There is good White blood worth saving in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and even Brasil. But they are still our enemies.”
What Bouie calls the “temporal proximity” between Roof and Trump goes beyond rhetoric, though. The ideas Roof espoused, nasty as they were, help explain the social and spatial realities that produced Trump’s most avid supporters, many of whom live in segregated quarters where they rarely come in contact with the Latino immigrants and racial “others” whose citizenship they voted against.
When Roof wrote:
Segregation was not a bad thing. It was a defensive measure. Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them. And I mean that in multiple ways. Not only did it protect us from having to interact with them, and from being physically harmed by them, but it protected us from being brought down to their level.
This is not just some bigot-rambling lifted from alt-right websites. This was the language that Baltimore’s Mayor J. Barry Mahool used in 1911 in rolling out the city’s new residential zoning ordinance: “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance,” said Mahool, “to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”
Such ordinances might now be outlawed, but current residential patterns prove that the anxieties behind them live on, certifiably. According to the Brookings demographer William Frey, for small metropolitan areas across the U.S., white people still live in places where at least four out of five of their neighbors share their skin color, as CityLab recently reported. The big error in Roof’s manifesto might be that he wrote about segregation in the past tense.
Roof grew up in the small city-suburb of Lexington, South Carolina, which is roughly 83 percent white. With a population of less than 20,000, Lexington is exactly the kind of white, working-class “small-metro” that the Brookings Institution reported breaking for Trump—and it did, in fact, favor Trump 2-to-1 over Clinton.
This is not the kind of financially devastated town that so many reports claim are responsible for Trump’s victory. It, in fact, has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. The median household income in Lexington is $53,847 and its home ownership rate is 73.6 percent, much higher than the state median and about even with the national median. “Growth is the norm, not the exception in Lexington,” reads a 2014 NerdWallet post on “Cities on the Rise” in the state. “The city’s population has increased steadily over 20 years. Signs point to continued growth as more people move to Lexington for the quality schools and proximity to Columbia.”
But those reports about Trump voters’ financial anxieties were somewhat misleading anyway. A study conducted by Gallup researchers Jonathan T. Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell found “mixed evidence that economic distress has motivated” Trump’s supporters. ”His supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations, but they earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration,” reads their report. “On the other hand, living in racially isolated communities with worse health outcomes, lower social mobility, less social capital, greater reliance on Social Security income and less reliance on capital income, predicts higher levels of Trump support.”
Additional research on the election has reinforced the fact that it was towns with mostly middle-income households that most represented for Trump on November 8. Their voting behavior is motivated by something other than economic anxiety. Something like what motivated Dylann Roof.
Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander found in their analysis of hate group data from the Southern Poverty Law Center that “the geography of hate reflects the geography of the 2016 vote and the broader Red state/Blue state divide. Hate groups were positively associated with Trump support—one of the very highest correlations in our analysis.”
The roots of this racial enmity are deep: Earlier this year, a group of political scientists from Harvard and Stanford published a study in the Journal of Politics, which found 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 historical 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 Republican, 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.
Today, Lexington County is called “the most Republican county in the nation.” Or, at least that’s what South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor Henry McMaster called it while addressing the crowd that packed Lexington’s Harmon Tree Farm on January 27. They didn’t flock there for the “quality schools.” They were there for a Trump rally.