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Slavery’s heavy hand

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | May 31, 2012

In an earlier post, I mused about the notion of the “heavy hand of history,” the idea that long-past conditions pull us in certain directions even generations after the fateful events. One of the very earliest users of the phrase, in 1944, was an eminent psychologist who was trying to understand the situation of African Americans 80 years after Emancipation.

Now, a just-published study reinforces the point, showing that the deeper a southern county’s immersion in slavery in 1860, the greater the black-white inequality in that county in 2000.

1862 slave family

1862 slave family (LC-USZCN4-280)

Slavery and poverty

Heather A. O’Connell finds  that the higher the percentage of a county’s population who were slaves in 1860s, the worse the poverty of black residents in 2000, 140 years later (source). The reader’s first reaction is (and should be) to say that this is not about the heavy hand of anything. Rather, the kinds of places in the South that in 1860 were conducive – by reason of climate, soil condition, distance to transportation, and so on – to plantation agriculture are the same places that for similar reasons are economically disadvantaged today. But O’Connell statistically controls for all sorts of such factors. (This is a statistically hairy task; spatial auto-correlation anyone?) In the end, the extent of slavery in a county in 1860 — although it is not as important in 2000 as, say, the industrial make-up or the size of the black population — partially accounts for that county’s black-white gap  in poverty today (mainly because counties with strong slavery pasts tend to have elevated rates of black poverty now).

Despite generations of economic development, mass migrations around the region, and widespread social change, the heavy hand of slavery reaches across the centuries.

O’Connell is not the only scholar to show this heavy hand in contemporary poverty; she cites others. The broader point about the lasting legacy of southern race relations also shows up in studies of violence. One study found that (controlling for virtually every entangling factor imaginable), law enforcement officials in counties that had a history of many lynchings back between 1880 and 1930 were in 2000 less likely to prosecute anti-black hate crimes than were officials in counties with lesser histories of lynchings. The same scholars showed that high lynching rates a century earlier also predicted rates of black-on-black and white-on-black homicides at the end the twentieth century. (And other research suggests that lynchings more often occurred in those counties that were based heavily on plantation economies.)

How could elements of so distant a past, such as the concentration of slaves in 1860, have lasting effects 140 years later and have such effects despite all the economic and social changes in between? The answers O’Connell and other scholars give is that communities and regions have local cultures that get passed on from decade to decade even as circumstances change and even as people move in and out. In this case, a tradition of racial repression, a strong caste system, was passed on in some places from slavery days through the Jim Crow era and even into our times.

A classic study conducted in the 1930s – about halfway in time between slavery and the 2000 economy — illustrated how that tradition of racial control was passed on. In Caste and Class in a Southern Town, psychologist John Dollard described the depth and rigidity of race relations in Indianola, Mississippi, where everyone knew their place. For “Negroes,” that place was off the sidewalk to let whites pass. Decades later, in the 1970s, Dollard reflected on his experiences in Indianola (here) and concluded, “If you believe my book, you’d have to believe that the change is going to be pretty slow because it’s going to have to be a cultural change . . .”

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Slavery’s heavy hand

  1. I’ve always wondered how many people in poverty today have been poor since slavery. Some people who are poor today have essentially always been poor, with no one ever earning a college degree or a wage that would allow them to be better off than their parents.

    This is not only American blacks but many Appalachians and other poor whites, some Latinos, many Native Americans. We don’t want to know about this because it contradicts a key aspect of the American Dream. And certainly, *some* people in all of those groups rise up. But I think it is more common for immigrants to America to rise up and the immigration story often gets imposed on many Americans (like the descendents of slaves) who are not immigrants.

    This seems like a statistical question that we could answer by looking at families and their income over time. How much inequality in America today can be traced back to slavery? What percentage of Americans have always been poor? What percentage of people with rich grandparents ever become poor compared to those with poor grandparents who ever become rich?

    How much does having a grandparent who went to college or owned a business give you an “unfair” advantage over someone whose grandparents had been poor for 3 or 4 generations?

    How exceptional do you have to be in order to overcome your family background? Very exceptional? Only a little?

    These all seem like answer-able questions so it’s confusing to me that this kind of information never seems to be mentioned when we discuss poverty.

    I don’t understand why news stories and even statistical studies compare the descendents of slaves, early indentured servants, and Native Americans to European immigrants. From what I can see, those groups have absolutely nothing in common.

    • SK, the reality is that far too many politicians and judges have indentured themselves to the power of money and threats of political purgatory, tyrannized by the power of superPACs and Emperor Norquist who rules them with their pledge to bow to his supremacy.

      So congress looks like a plantation, but this time slavery threatens every race in America because congress is refusing to protect We The People.

  2. Prof. Fischer, the totally unacceptable fact of life today is that our voting, civil and women’s rights have been under destructive attack during the 2012 election cycle, making it possible for a whole new era of tyranny by the owners of radical right wing superPACs over all other American social and economic classes. Again, we have failed to learn the lessons of Ancient Athenian Democracy.

    Fortunately, our newest generations are the first in history to have capabilities for instant social interaction due to the newest technologies, giving them historically superior opportunities to participate in global conversations for learning, thinking, sharing and analyzing alternatives, solutions, and initiating actions to meet increasingly out of control challenges of change we are experiencing today.

    They can avoid Us vs. Them divisions that our current political, religious and cultural institutions have not been able to overcome.

    Their future is truly up to them for the first time in history, using cooperation and compromise to produce a better future together.

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