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Does Slavery Still Impact Modern U.S. Politics? | Behind the Book with Maya Sen & Matthew Blackwell

Does Slavery Still Impact Modern U.S. Politics? | Behind the Book with Maya Sen & Matthew Blackwell

[Narrator] The enslavement
of African Americans ended 150 years ago. But does it still affect politics today? That’s the question professors
Maya Sen, Matthew Blackwell, and Avidit Acharya try
to answer in their book, Deep Roots: How Slavery Still
Shapes Southern Politics. Their findings demonstrate
how historical institutions continue to shape modern,
political attitudes. On this episode of Behind the Book, co-authors Sen and Blackwell sit down to discuss the lasting
effects of slavery in the US, and how we can disrupt a 150 year legacy of political attitudes
in the south and beyond. Deep Roots began with a question: what makes US politics
exceptionally conservative, and to what extent can this
be traced to America’s past? [Maya Sen] United States is a
little bit more conservative than other western democracies. It’s more conservative
on things like religion, guns, incarceration. Just overall, is more conservative than countries in Europe,
Japan, places such as this. [Narrator] The co-authors
interests were inspired by a study of the sociology
of West African citizens, living in areas affected by
the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That study found that
individuals in those areas had a higher mistrust of outsiders. Professor Sen, Blackwell, and Acharya, wanted to explore this
concept in the context of American slavery. [Matthew Blackwell] I think
the core findings of our book that whites, who today,
live in parts of the south, that had high rates of slavery in 1860, are more conservative on a
host of political attitudes, compared to whites that
lived in parts of the south, that had low levels of slavery. [Narrator] In fact, the
relationship is so strong, that it can be used to
predict voting habits. In southern counties that had
larger populations of slaves, white voters tend to embrace
more conservative positions, than those in counties
that had fewer slaves. But the authors found that
on non-race related issues, the strong historical link between slavery and current political
attitudes wasn’t present. [Matthew Blackwell] So
in things like abortion, on things like gay rights,
on the environment, they seem to be very similar. [Narrator] One popular theory
for why racial animosity continues to be so high in these regions, is sometimes referred to as racial threat. Racial threat theorizes that as a minority racial group grows, the
majority racial group reacts to this growth as a threat. [Maya Sen] But actually,
we don’t really see that in our analysis, we don’t
see anything like that. [Matthew Blackwell] No, in fact,
if anything, we see the opposite. If there are two counties, one with lots of African Americans, and
the other with very few African Americans, the whites that live with more black people
tend to be more liberal. [Narrator] But how exactly
does an institution that’s been extinct for
a century and a half, still have such an impact
on contemporary politics? Professor Sen attributes it to the fact, that although slavery as an institution, ended with the Civil
War, it left an imprint of apartheid and oppression in its wake, that carried through well
into the 20th Century. One can point to a number
of historical phenomena: the black codes during reconstruction, the convict leasing system, and Jim Crow as vestiges of a system
that relies heavily on economic exploitation. [Maya Sen] Racial
suppression that’s sort of this racial hierarchy, went from something that was state sanctioned,
and had the full force of the federal government
and state governments in the form of slavery, to something that actually had to be more informally and kind of socially supported. [Narrator] So how do we move forward? How can we disrupt a 150-year-old legacy of racial hierarchy in the south? The authors say that we can
start by looking to policy. [Maya Sen] The Civil Rights
Act of 1964 was very effective in reducing regional
differences in the south in terms of educational inequalities between blacks and whites. The Voting Rights Act is
similar for voter turn out. After the Voting Rights Act,
substantially larger numbers of African Americans
are turning out to vote. [Narrator] Policy measures have led to some significant, concrete outcomes. But for addressing people’s
racial attitudes and beliefs, the authors say that we should
turn to the grass roots. [Maya Sen] Where policy
interventions do a worse job, is in terms of changing
peoples attitudes and beliefs. [Narrator] The book is Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes
Southern Politics, written by Harvard professors Maya Sen and Matthew Blackwell,
and Stanford professor, Avidit Acharya. It’s published by
Princeton University Press. This has been Behind
the Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services, at the Harvard Kennedy School. Special thanks to the Hauser Studio. Find past and future
episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard
Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter @HKSLibrary, and visiting our website.

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