While congressional leadership and President Obama unveiled a statue of civil rights advocate Rosa Parks last week, the U.S. Supreme Court debated one of the landmark laws that culminated the modern civil rights movement for black Americans: the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In oral arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts posed the question to the government’s top Supreme Court lawyer: Does the Obama administration think “the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?”
In response, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli answered “no.”
While it may seem simple to lawyers to categorically deny a difference in terms of racism, some evidence may warrant a slightly different response.
For political scientists who study Southern politics, there are contradictory findings from the solicitor general’s definitive statement.
In their 2005 study, Nicholas Valentino and David O. Sears found that Southerners continue to “display more racial antagonism and ideological conservatism than non-Southern whites.”
For their data, they used responses to various statements in the American National Election Study (ANES), one of the foremost collections of American public opinion data collected. ANES gives us some findings that may address the Chief Justices’s question.
First, white Southerners are much more likely to self-identify as either slightly conservative, conservative, or extremely conservative than non-Southerners.
In fact, since 1998, conservatism among white Southerners has grown in comparison to white non-Southerners.
Conversely, the opposite end of the ideological spectrum shows a dramatic increase of non-Southerners whites who say they are slightly liberal, liberal, or extremely liberal in comparison to Southern whites.
So Southern whites are more conservative and less liberal than whites in the rest of the nation. But does that extend to racial attitudes as well?
In looking at the ANES from 1986 to 2008, several questions could be used to tap into a sense of “racial attitudes” that portray a sense of antagonism.
One such question focused on whether ANES respondents agreed or disagreed with the statement “generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
If regional racial attitudes are antagonized, one would expect Southern whites to disagree more than non-Southerners with that statement. In fact, the pattern since 1986 has been that Southerners would disagree (either somewhat or strongly) with that sentiment in comparison to non-Southerners.
Another ANES question focused on whether there should be special favors for minorities in overcoming prejudice and working their way up. Respondents were presented with the idea that “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up” and then asked the respondent’s sense of agreement or disagreement with the statement that “blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
With the exception of 1994 and 2000, more white Southerners somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that blacks should do the same without any special favors.
A third statement on the ANES surveys focused on the statement “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”
From 1986 to 2000, white Southerners either somewhat or strongly agreed more than non-Southerners in their sentiments on “worker harder,” but 2004 and 2008 showed more of a convergence between the South and non-South than on other questions.
More recently, a 2012 study by Harvard political science professor Seth Stephens-Davidowitz found that Google searches that included racially charged language demonstrated racial animus and impacted President’s Obama 2008 election results in those areas (most notably Appalachia) where racial animus was strong.
As the Supreme Court debates the validity and need of the most important civil rights legislation of the 20th Century (which will impact North Carolina—more on that in a later post), a national debate must continue on the interaction of race and politics in our nation. Simple “no” and “yes” answers need to be more fully developed in having an honest conversation about race.
*ANES uses Census coding for “Southern” states: Alabama, Arkansas, Deleware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia.