Is There Really a Racial Divide Between North and South?

George Hawley, The American Conservative, July 30, 2017

Whether it is primarily due to migration, mass media, federal policy, or the homogenizing effects of global capitalism, the cultural and political differences between the North and South have become less pronounced in recent decades.

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Across the South, monuments to the Confederacy have been coming down—though not everywhere in the region—and with some serious pushback. Alabama, for example, passed legislation protecting such monuments in May. A white nationalist rally in defense of Confederate statues occurred in Charlottesville, Va., that same month. A similar rally is apparently in the works in a few weeks.

On the other hand, if support for Trump is a reasonable proxy for racial attitudes (I vacillate on whether it is), we might say that white Southerners are moving in a different direction compared to the rest of the country. That is, in some Southern states, Trump underperformed compared to recent Republican presidential candidates. This is one reason Trump was able to win the election, despite not actually increasing the Republican share of the white vote: He gained white votes in states where it mattered, but held steady or actually lost white support in states where it mattered less.

Whereas Mitt Romney won 68 percent of the white vote in North Carolina, Trump won only 63 percent of that demographic group. Trump also performed worse than Romney among whites in Virginia. Of the Southern states for which we have exit poll data from both years, only Florida showed an increase in the Republican share of the white vote.

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It is worth considering whether surveys show a significant geographic divide among white Americans when it comes to race.

To begin answering this question, we can turn to the most recent American National Election Survey. I have mentioned before that the 2016 survey had a trove of very good questions relating to race. By disaggregating whites in the North and South, we should be able to discern if there is still a significant difference in attitudes, as this survey had a sufficient number of white respondents to allow us to disaggregate the data by region and maintain confidence that the results are correct; the survey included 853 Southern whites and 2,185 non-Southern whites.

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When it comes to affirmative action, the difference in opinion is rather small. In both the North and the South, white support for affirmative action in university admissions is weak. Among Northern whites, about 15 percent favored “allowing universities to increase the number of black students studying at their schools by considering race along with other factors when choosing students.” In the South, this number was 12 percent. That is very low, but scarcely lower than what we find among the white Yankee population.

White Opinion on Impact of Affirmative Action

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We see greater geographic variation, however, in the answers to the vaguer question, “In general, does the federal government treat whites better than blacks, treat them both same, or treat blacks better than whites?”

White Opinion on Government Treatment of Blacks and Whites

In both regions, a near majority of respondents declared that the government was racially neutral.

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As I’ve written before, this suggests that discussions about white privilege have had a meager impact on the actual attitudes of most white Americans.

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When looking at these kinds of questions, we again see differences, and in the expected direction, but the gap is small in each case. When asked about black Americans’ work ethic, about four percent of non-Southern whites described blacks as “lazy”; among Southern whites, the percentage was about five percent. On a similarly-worded question asking whether blacks are violent or peaceful, about eight percent of Southern whites described blacks as violent, compared to about four percent of non-Southern whites.

Given the rather modest regional differences on most of these questions, it is possible that the gaps that exist are driven by other factors (such as different average levels of educational attainment), rather than the lingering memory of Jim Crow and de-segregation. But regardless of the causal mechanism at work, there does appear to be a gap.

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