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Is Racism Worse in the South?

John Roberts's question frames the Voting Rights Act case. Too bad there's no answer.

Getty Images/Getty Images News/Chris Hondros

In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court arguments over the Voting Rights Act, the geography of racism is once again a topic of debate. None other than Chief Justice John Roberts kicked things off when he asked the act’s defenders—that would be the U.S. government—a 20-word question that brilliantly framed the entire debate: “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens of the South are more racist than the citizens of the North?” Roberts asked, pinning a very ragged tail on a very ugly donkey.

Unlike most debates about this question, this one has real implications. The landmark act requires that areas of the country with a particularly virulent history of racial discrimination must receive federal approval before making changes in their voting laws. To no one’s surprise, the majority of the states covered by Section 5 are located in the South. If the answer is “yes,” then a reasonable case can be made for upholding the existing law.

But I can’t help thinking that no one is going to be convinced. People see the words “racism” and “South” and, whatever their level of social enlightenment or position on immigration reform, their view is already fixed. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from doctrinaire northern liberals convinced that the entire South is one federal restriction away from launching a wistful, slave days lynch-fest, or if it’s shouted from the ramparts by hayfoot rebel martyrs who know in their hearts that New York, Detroit, or Chicago are the true racist hellscapes and that everyone north of the Ohio River who ever opened a perfidious Yankee textbook has been tricked by a litany of briar patch falsehoods and trailer gentry stereotypes.

Last year, I wrote a book about the South. It was not what you’d call a warm, loving embrace. All the same, the portion of the book where I tried to study the subject of Roberts’s question was the hardest to write. I tried to find a magic formula, aggregate statistics, gather a collection of irrefutable facts to show that what I felt to be true, what many of us feel to be true, is in fact the truth—that Southerners really are more racist than the rest of us. But the truth about bigotry in Dixie is that, with one or two exceptions (we’ll get there in a minute), you cannot prove that racism is worse in the South than it is anywhere else in the country.

From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Roots to Django Unchained, a mountain of actual history and popular imagery would seem to support a view of Southerners as uncompromising bigots. From the Jena Six to Trayvon Martin, recent anecdotal evidence is as depressingly familiar as it is compelling. There are scholars who will talk to you for hours about the Southern centrality to racism. At Texas A&M University, Pulitzer Prize nominee, prolific author and sociology professor Joe Feagin told me a couple years ago that, “structural racism is much stronger in the South.”

“The South still has that underlying structure of slavery and Jim Crow,” Feagin told me. “The South is where it’s rooted most deeply and still is because it’s got half the black population of the country.”

Using more folksy language, Seth Myers made essentially the same point this past weekend on Saturday Night Live: “The South is the Michael Jordan of racism.”

Articulating the country’s widespread gut conviction, Feagin and Myers have a powerful argument. Pity that the facts don’t support it. Based on empirical evidence—scholars never tire of tracking wealth distribution, voting patterns, and the like—you simply can’t state unequivocally that racism in the South is worse than it is anywhere else in the country. The land of Harpers Ferry nostalgics may yield plenty of horrifying anecdotes and a bitter historic record to support such a view, but constructing a quantifiable measure of racism turns out to be nearly impossible.

Responding to Judge Roberts's question, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr. cleared his throat and answered no. And with good reason.

Through the years, researchers have devised a number of ingenious ways to measure racism and map its malice through empirical evidence. These assessments run a data gamut from income distribution to ethnic circulation within zip codes to property taxes allocated for public schools. Perhaps the most notorious measure of regional racism in the public realm is the infamous Hate Map published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. A state-by-state accounting of active hate groups in the United States, the Hate Map is a lightning rod to Southerners and conservatives who consider the SPLC a communist/soccer playing/vegan/fitted tee type of organization whose primary mission is to besmirch their not-so-good names.

According to the SPLC’s 2012 data, there are currently 1,108 hate groups operating in the United States. A quick glance at the Hate Map reveals the kind of shitkicker-country distribution you’d expect to find. In a contiguous belt of states taking in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, no state has fewer than 25 active hate groups. Tennessee has 39. Florida has 55. Georgia, an astonishing 65.

But, like virtually every measure of racism, a cursory glance at the figures is misleading. We see in them what we expect to see. “With few exceptions, the Hate Map generally tracks population, not Southern culture,” says Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC and one of the country’s foremost authorities on racial extremism. “Zones where there is a historic cultural conflict like Southern California always have high counts.” California has 84 of them.

The Hate Map is by no means a perfect barometer of prejudice, but, as with certain other measures, it’s distinguished by the presence of a couple of Confederate outliers, in this case Mississippi (41 hate groups) and South Carolina (27). “South Carolina is by far the number one state for hate groups on a per capita basis,” Potok told me when I visited the SPLC in 2011, before Mississippi stole the Palmetto State’s crown. “We figure that every year and it’s always South Carolina.”

Following this week’s Supreme Court drama, I called the SPLC and spoke with Intelligence Project Director Heidi Beirich, who oversees the organization’s yearly tally of hate, hard-line, and anti-government groups. While agreeing with Potok’s assessment of the Hate Map, Beirich wasn’t entirely willing to play nice with the Skynryd nation. Take those notorious anti-immigration laws, first passed in immigrant-heavy Arizona, but since then adopted only in Deep South states like Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. “You look at voting problems and they show that racism, or at least institutional racism, is more intractable in the South,” Beirich concluded.

Without data, we’re left with anecdote. There’s plenty to go around. Based on my own travels through Dixie—and more than two years living in Texas—I do believe that, even without proof that racism is “worse” there, it’s fair to say that race consciousness is fundamentally different in the South than it is in the North.

There’s a preoccupation with skin color in the South that exists nowhere else. On radio call-in shows, in impromptu conversations, bars, churches, parks, barbershops, coffee counters, in discussions that have absolutely nothing to do with race, Southerners of all ethnicities introduce the topic as casually and as void of nuance as they might when bringing up the weather.

Atlanta-based sports journalist Spencer Hall once explained it to me this way: “Race is a topic of discussion in the South for the same reason unexploded ordnance is a topic of discussion in France and Belgium.”

And sometimes the ordnance isn’t even buried. South Carolina, home to the only black Republican U.S. senator, still proudly flies the Confederate flag in front of its capitol in Columbia. Tour the grounds of the gorgeous classical revival-style State House and you’ll find a shrine to slaveholders, racial oppressors, demagogues, and grits-munching political obstinacy.

Walking counter-clockwise from the north side of the domed capitol facing Gervais Street, you encounter a large bronze statue of Ben Tillman, South Carolina governor from 1890 to 1894 and U.S. senator from 1895 to 1918. “Pitchfork Ben” was also one of the most vehement white supremacists this country has ever produced, a man who publicly advocated lynching all black people uppity enough to vote. Tillman once said of African Americans, “We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”

After Tillman comes a larger-than-life tribute to longtime Senator Strom Thurmond, the 1948 Dixiecrat pro-segregationist candidate for the U.S. presidency.

A chess jump from Thurmond is Wade Hampton on horseback upon a high pedestal. Hampton was the undeniably talented Civil War commander who in 1860 also happened to be one of the largest slave owners in the world. Following the war and Reconstruction, Hampton led the charge to deny blacks equal rights under the law and re-establish white rule in South Carolina, first as governor in 1876, then as a U.S. senator. Even as statuary, this is a man who looks like anything he says can and will be used against him.

The capitol’s more contemporary monuments are similarly unsettling, albeit more subtle. Fifty yards from Hampton is the African American History Monument. Erected in 2001, it’s a handsome piece of work with curved granite walls depicting scenes from the African American experience. Panels representing different eras in South Carolina history loom over the skeletal imprint of a slave ship packed with horizontal bodies.

Though no doubt conceived with noble intentions, it’s significant to note that, per orders of the African American Monument Commission set up by the state legislature to oversee its design, the monument wasn’t allowed to “represent any actual human being who actually lived,” according to Kenneth Davis, a member of the commission. Figures such as slave-revolt leader Denmark Vesey were censored out of the original design. The commission was chaired by then-state senator Glenn McConnell, a white man who’d been a vociferous supporter of keeping the Confederate flag on display on the State House grounds. Today, McConnell is South Carolina’s lieutenant governor. Online, you can find pictures of McConnell all dressed up pretending to be a Confederate officer accompanied by his slaves. And not on Halloween.

Symbols matter. They’re of vital importance to cultural identity. That’s why a large number of Southerners embrace theirs so ferociously. It’s also why Germany made public displays of the swastika illegal after World War II.

The argument here isn’t that that the North doesn’t have its own voting problems, or its own dubious pols, or even, in the case of New York’s Dov Hikind, pols who pose for dubious pictures. But so long as Southern officials like McConnell insist on clinging to their symbols of oppression, and so long as the majority of voters keep electing guys like him to some of the highest offices in their state governments, they’re going to have to live with being seen as the Michael Jordan of racism, even if they hung up that jersey long ago. And, like every other superstar who keeps begging for the limelight—by bringing cases to the Supreme Court or stoking Confederate nostalgia with bumper stickers and t-shirts—they’re going to have to get used to the fact that rest of the country can’t help but feeling a need to keep an eye on them. In that regard, the Voting Rights Act is a symbol, too.