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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.