Expert Commentary

Southern blacks more supportive of American political system

African Americans in the South are more supportive of “American values” and the U.S. political system than black people living outside the South, a new study finds.

Map of the U.S. South

Pundits often assume a minority group has a homogeneous opinion, that members of a particular race will share political values and vote the same way.

The reality, of course, is far more nuanced. New research charts the way values vary between African-American communities in regions of the United States with different histories of racism and discrimination.

An academic study worth reading: “African Americans and American Values: Does South Matter?” in Social Science Quarterly, 2017.

Study summary: Jas Sullivan of Louisiana State University and his colleagues survey regional variation in African Americans’ support for what are often called core American values, specifically in the South.

“A history of slavery, secession from the Union, the Civil War, and a lingering aftermath of both legal and social racial suppression in the American South fundamentally define this region of the country as unique,” they explain.

They also take the position that while African Americans who live outside of the South certainly face discrimination, the discrimination is more systemic in the South, where vestiges of Jim Crow laws continue to bridle the black population. What do those different experiences mean, the authors ask, for African Americans’ values?

In short, “Do southern blacks have a more positive opinion of the American system than African Americans who reside outside the South?”

Previous studies, which focused largely on white Americans, found residency in the South “strongly correlated with partisanship, ideology, and other core political values such as authoritarianism and nationalism.”

So Sullivan and his colleagues over-sampled African Americans across the country, looking at these values as indicators of support for the political system. They use nationally representative data collected by the University of Michigan in 2001 and 2003: 2,137 African Americans and 606 white Americans participated in both surveys.

The researchers measure subjects’ agreement or disagreement with three statements: “I am very proud to be an American,” to measure national pride; “America is the land of opportunity in which you only need to work hard to succeed,” to measure work ethic; and “obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn,” to measure what the authors call “authoritarianism.” They coded these “American values” on a four-point scale. They also coded for race, region, religion and other demographic factors.

Key takeaways:

  • Southern black people are more supportive of “American values” than black people outside the South.
  • African Americans in the South are 9 percentage points more likely to agree strongly with the statement: “I am very proud to be an American” (76 percent compared to 67 percent).
  • They are 5 percentage points more likely to agree strongly with the statement: “obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn” (50 percent compared to 45 percent).
  • There is no regional difference among African Americans in how they respond to the statement: “America is the land of opportunity in which you only need to work hard to succeed.”
  • To test if these were regional findings, the authors also looked at responses by white people. In each case, white people had a larger regional difference than African Americans did, with southern whites in every case exhibiting stronger notions of patriotism than southern blacks and whites elsewhere.

The authors offer possible explanations: “A degree of strategic investment in the American system is understandable in the southern African-American community because it is that system that produced at least minimal gains after over a century of struggle. Southern African Americans are more likely than non-southerners to be surrounded by artifacts, stories, and other reminders of struggle and resulting gains of the system. And while these experiences and reminders will also help remind them of the problems with the political system, it is a system that is not likely to change dramatically. So keeping hard-fought gains and pushing ahead is a logic that would suggest greater support among southern African Americans for American values.”

Sullivan and his colleagues also note that the education system in the South embraces local values and then passes these values to both black and white students over generations.

Helpful resources:

We have looked at research on the role of race in voter turnout, in criminal justice, in perceptions of police bias and in excessive police force. Our 2016 research review on voter fraud touches on the racism underpinning some voter ID laws.

A 2004 literature review in the Annual Review of Political Science examines the influence of race on political attitudes. In 2005 Political Psychology addressed black partisanship in the South. A number of scholars have written about white attitudes in the South; this 2011 volume from the University of Arkansas Press collects essays from some of the leaders in the field.

The National Association of Black Journalists publishes a style guide on how to use neutral language when addressing race.

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