Search the Site

Eric Oliver on the “Bigot Belt”

Eric Oliver is a colleague of mine at the University of Chicago. He is the author of the absolutely fantastic book Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic.

He has some new and interesting insights on the “Bigot Belt,” which he has generously written up for the Freakonomics blog.

The Bigot Belt
By Eric Oliver
A Guest Post

Like many people, I was fascinated by a map recently published by The New York Times illustrating the shifting vote margins between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

Of particular note was the broad swath of counties running from Oklahoma and East Texas through Arkansas to Kentucky and West Virginia where the Republican vote margins actually increased from 2004. How, in an election year so dominated by Democrats, did these counties go from merely “red” to “scarlet”?

The immediate answer to this question seems to be race. “The Deep South still resonates with negative feelings about the race of President-elect Barack Obama,” wrote Adam Nossiter in The Times, quoting various locals of Vernon, Ala., who expressed fear of having a black man “over” them. The implication is that in any place where the Republican vote margin increased, whites are more racially intolerant.

Such a conclusion is premature. Drawing inferences about individual behavior from aggregate data is a classic example of what statisticians call an “ecological fallacy.” In other words, looking at county election returns, it is simply impossible to tell whether McCain voters in Independence County, Ark. (where the Republican margin increased by 23 percentage points), are any more or less racist than McCain supporters in Door County, Wis. (where the margin swung 20 points toward the Democrats).

Nor can county election returns explain why whites in the South are more threatened by a black president than whites in the North. Perhaps race wasn’t a factor at all. Many “scarlet” counties are in regions heavily dependent on the oil and coal industries, and the voting shifts might have been triggered by the Republican mantra of “drill, baby, drill.”

To differentiate between these explanations, we need to identify what is distinctive about “scarlet” counties. This may not tell us about the motivations of any individual resident, but it can give us some hints about why the “scarlet” counties zigged while the rest of the country zagged.

Based on census data, “scarlet” counties were poorer, less educated, more rural, and had higher unemployment than the national average. For example, in “scarlet” counties only 13 percent of adults hold a college degree, on average, compared to 17 percent for the “azure” counties (where Democratic margins increased). Seventy-three percent of the “scarlet” counties are rural, compared to 59 percent of “azure” counties.

If we think that poverty, low education, and rural residence underlie white racial animosity, then the race hypothesis might have some support (although “scarlet” counties also have a higher percentage working in the mining industry).

Interestingly though, the “scarlet” counties are not older or more white; their populations average about 85 percent white and 15 percent over age 65 — rates nearly identical to the national county averages.

If race is so important for explaining these voting trends, then how do we make sense of these last findings?

The answer comes in looking at both the county and the state together. One of the biggest demographic differences between “scarlet” and “azure” counties is the racial composition of the state population: 72 percent of the “scarlet” counties are in states that are over 10 percent black compared to only 49 percent of the “azure” counties. In a multivariate regression analysis using all the variables listed above, the best predictor of a county’s Republican vote margin is its white racial percentage relative to its state’s black population size. In other words, the counties where Republican margins grew the largest tended to be predominantly white places in otherwise racially mixed states.

These patterns are consistent with research on individual racial attitudes. Historically, the greatest levels of racial violence occurred within white enclaves near larger black populations, particularly when these enclaves are poor and uneducated. Even today, whites who live in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods within more diverse metropolitan areas tend to be more racially hostile than whites who live in either integrated neighborhoods or within largely white regions. In more diverse settings, locally segregated whites have less contact with nearby minorities yet also feel greater competition for jobs and public goods. The combination of both increased racial competition and racial isolation seems to be a recipe for generating racial animosity.

The same thing may be happening in the “scarlet” counties. Racially isolated whites in Arkansas or Alabama may have been more afraid of voting for Obama not because they are more racist than white voters in Minnesota or Montana, but because they perceive greater racial competition with nearby black populations.

Of course, this pattern does not account for all the vote shifts. There were plenty of counties in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia that went “scarlet” even though the black populations of these states are relatively small (here, lower education levels and higher white poverty may be at work).

Nevertheless, these results should dispel the idea that with the election of Obama, America has somehow “transcended” race. Undoubtedly, racism is still pervasive in the United States, but where it appears depends a lot on social context.