Hatred and Profits: Getting Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan

That is the title of my latest academic working paper, written with Roland Fryer. It details the rise and fall of the Klan in the 1920s. Incredibly, the Klan had millions of members at that time, and most of them were reasonably well-educated. Based on a variety of data sources, we argue that, despite its size and education levels, the group nevertheless had little measurable impact on society or politics. It was, however, an incredible engine for generating profits for Klan leaders.

More effort went into this paper, I believe, than any other paper I have ever written. Roland and I started this project five years ago and I wouldn’t be surprised if 10,000 hours were invested in it since then.


I would like to read this when I have some time.
This history of the Klan is stupid and fascinating.
But then again I'm fascinated with any cult or cultlike organization from Neo-Nazis to Freemasons to Scientologists. Can I mention them here?
Goddess told me to. Fnord.

Aaron Scott

As a sincere Christian, I have been pondering a troubling and cynical thought that goes right along with your KKK findings: All priesthoods seem designed to ensure that the faithful support the "priests."

In Leviticus, I was somewhat amazed at how the Levites were set up to be taken care of by the people. True, they did not get to inherit land, but other than that, that were the arbiters of law, received their sustenance from others to a significant degree, etc. Of course, being a believer, I could only say that, "A God who answers by fire can set up His priesthood any way He pleases."

Then I thought of the Church. Why in the world do we have churches in such abundance, when many of them believe so similarly? In my own denomination, it is not uncommon for two very-much-alike churches to be within a couple of miles of each other--sometimes just blocks! Why? I can only think that, really, it is some ministers desire to run his own show, to receive his own salary, etc., rather than just merge the churches and send the savings to the needy.

Oddly enough, I believe that most of the time these things are done by sincere hearts, who perhaps don't even realize what is being done. But it's almost like some sort of DNA in such organizations--we just do it because it is in us to do so. And so, thought McDonald's would likely never place another McDonald's right across the street...you can find that in the church in virtually every city in America.

Looks like competition to me. And it is--for the dollars and support of the faithful, to some degree (even if from a sincere heart).

Of course, to fail to support a "priesthood" means you are going straight to hell...or that you are allowing the undesireable to overrun America through your negligence, etc.

I guess I am a cynic after all--ha!



Fascinating to think that an organization that scared hell out of people even in the northern tier states didn't really have much impact even in the short run. Seems to me it forced many good people to keep their heads down and prompted many others to get out of the South. Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird describes things in 1935 and suggests that it took a lot of courage to stand up in those days.

See Abstract, line 4: "Klan membership ROLLS."


10,000 hours in five years? Is that your time, or your time and Roland's? Unless my math is off, there are 43,800 hours in 5 years...did you really spend 23% of your time, every day, every week, of each of those 5 years working on this (divide by two if the 10,000 was a combined figure)? That is staggering, to say the least.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

I think #3 makes some excellent points about the impact of the Klan on people. The intimidation factor, alone, was probably substantial, especially in the South.

It's also interesting that some are equating the Klan with religion. I'm sure that many Klan members were (and are) Christian and I suppose that a certain fervor, which lends itself to extreme religiosity, can also be twisted into service for something like the KKK.

Still, at least in theory, religion purports to treat others as one would have one's self treated (the golden rule). Unless people in the KKK wanted to have burning crosses erected in front of their homes, and they and their family members strung up from the limbs of trees, I don't think that there is all that much similarity between the KKK and most religions (at leasat as a religion such as Christianity is Meant to be practiced).


@Rita (#5): the sting in the tail is the "meant to be practiced". Just look at how Islam is twisted today by certain "leaders" from peace to violence, how Christianity was used through much of its history to justify wars of conquest within Europe and colonialism beyond it, or even how Christianity is still abused today by some to mislead people into supporting their particular political agenda. The moral seems to be that when people believe strongly and fervently about something, whether its something as benign as a loving deity or something as evil as racism, there will always be people looking to exploit those beliefs for their own power and profit. Sadly.


Thanks! Now I have something to read on my train ride home.

When I attended library school we read an article about an archives that acquired a collection of KKK documents, memorabilia and ephemera. They faced intense criticism from all directions because they were viewed as preserving the hatred the KKK promoted. The archives contended that they were preserving the past as it had happened and the preservation of the collection would allow people in the future to make their own judgements and interpretations.

Thank you for proving the archives' point.


Two typos in the first two pages. You should say "grateful TO Edward Glaser..." in the footnote on the title page. And in the Abstract, I think you meant to refer to "membership ROLLS", not roles.


I think many people make a connection between the Klan and organized religion mostly because the KKK often recruited out of churches in the early part of the century; they also used religious rhetoric in their speech and iconography in their actions, trying very hard to present themselves as agents of Christianity (perhaps mostly to convince themselves).

It's an amusing full-circle that Mr. Levitt has found in statistics proof for what Stetson Kennedy invented as a plot device in the "Superman" radio show: the Klan really was a criminal enterprise more about enriching its founders than about furthering any real ideology.

John in Santa Fe

One of my favorite parts of Freakonomics, the book on tape, was the section about the ingenious fellow who undercut the Klan by exposing their secret passwords on the Superman radio show. Just priceless, and creative. I loved it.


10,000 hours working on the KKK?

Instead, you could have worked 3,000 hours training for a 10K.


A "working" paper free to the public ... outstanding ... although you may be killing your journals ... it's a good thing you have tenure.


There is big money to be made spreading disinformation and hatred, pandering to the prejudices and insecurities of Americans? Don't tell this to the folks over at Fox News. They'll probably try and copyright it.


#13, I assume you are writing in response to #2? :)


The comparison of the KKK to religion is more about the similarities in behavior, traditions, membership enrollment, money, and culture. The comparison of ideals and beliefs are rarely strong even though the predominate religion in the US during the early 1900s was Christianity and therefore the KKK would share or incorporate some of the same ideals/beliefs.

It is really surprising that a cult has minimal influence on overall society. Even with the KKK making up ~1% of the population in the 1920s (based on US Census data of total US population of ~105M) their radical views could not reach a tipping point to sway the general public. I would hypothesize it is due to the two generations that passed since the Civil War. I also find it interesting how the the KKK's views changed after WWII and how membership numbers have changed since the 1940s to present and whether the membership numbers correlate to the changing ideals of the KKK.



I would appreciate seeing a similar treatment of the communist movement throughout the early to mid 1900s. After reading "Masters of Deceit" by J. Edgar Hoover it makes you feel as if the communists were controlling directly or indirectly almost every non-governmental organization available.


What about in Indiana in the early 20s? It would be hard to convince me a state where you have enough of a KKK presence to elect a governor (even if only for one term), had no social fallout afterwards. All those people riled up on hatred...I don't see how they wouldn't at least attempt to press that onto their children.

I'm not sure how you could measure that kind of social & economic impact. I'm curious to see how one would try, guess I'll have to read your whole paper tonight.

Maybe in the sense that the KKK was just mirroring a general social trend towards racism, they didn't "affect" anything, rather they were the effect itself, a symptom of the already existent issue?


Two more typos...

Page 33 - Footnote 28 - "$80,000" should read $890,000.

Page 40 - Description of Hydras - "In" need not be capitalized

Excellent and informative paper!


Having read your paper and understanding what an incredible amount of work went into creating your database, may I ask what you are planning to do with it now? It sounds like a potential resource for future researchers, especially as your sources are well documented. May I suggest you donate it to an archives you utilized, perhaps Duke's as they have a digital repository?


Your paper should have looked at the impact of black migration north during WWI and the added tensions following the return of soldiers.