Black people have lower voter registration rates in parts of the U.S. South where lynching occurred most often in the decades following the Civil War, according to forthcoming research in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.
In Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, Black voter registration is nearly 3% lower in counties that rank in the top quartile for lynching rates from 1882 to 1930, compared with counties in the bottom quartile, finds the paper, “Historical Lynchings and the Contemporary Voting Behavior of Blacks.”
“Lynchings by definition are illegal killings — by definition, someone was killed illegally, period,” says author Jhacova Williams, an associate economist at the nonprofit policy think tank RAND Corp. “What [lynchings] taught someone’s great-great-great-grandfather was that whoever is supposed to protect you will not protect you. It taught, ‘I should not trust this system.’”
Williams notes that framework persists today: “When Black people see the killing of George Floyd, it is also a reminder of, ‘Yes, you are not connected. You are treated differently.’ So, because of that, ‘why would I vote?’”
Two years after the Civil War ended, Congress overrode a veto from President Andrew Johnson to pass the Reconstruction Act of 1867. The law required former Confederate states to provide universal voting rights for all men. Black men in the South voted for the first time, and Black politicians soon held large shares of legislative seats in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida.
The Ku Klux Klan responded with systematic, violent intimidation of Black Americans, including lynchings specifically meant to deter voting, Williams finds. The klan killed more than 2,000 Black people in 1868 in Louisiana alone, according to the paper.
“It’s hard to get rid of that trauma, and it does span generation to generation,” Williams says.
Few, if any, of the thousands of lynchings carried out from 1882 to 1930 were criminally prosecuted, and past research has demonstrated lynchings suppressed Black voter turnout in the months leading to an election.
“We think of racial domination as social practices, like segregation and racial violence, being about intimidation in the social sphere,” says Ohio State University economics professor Trevon Logan, who was not involved in Williams’ analysis but provided feedback as she developed her research. “But there always has been a very pertinent political end to the story of racialized violence.”
Some states are restricting voting, others are expanding it
Williams’ paper reveals how violence from decades past affects current voting patterns at the same time states have passed or are considering laws to restrict voting.
In March, the Georgia legislature attracted news coverage when it passed a law making it harder to vote absentee. Georgia counties can now limit early voting on Sundays ahead of an election — a move critics contend targets “souls to the polls” get-out-the-vote efforts at Black churches. The law does require that counties hold two Saturday advance voting sessions for general elections.
Republican lawmakers in Ohio have proposed legislation that would restrict mail ballots for most voters there and ban drop box voting. At least 18 states have passed laws restricting voting this year, while 25 states have expanded voting access through mail ballots and other measures, according to a tally by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
At the federal level, the House of Representatives last week passed voting rights legislation that would restore provisions the Supreme Court stripped in recent years from the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Most notably, the court in 2013 ruled that states could change their voting laws without federal approval. At the time of the ruling, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and select counties in other states were subject to federal oversight because of historical evidence of racial discrimination in voting access.
The lingering effects of violence from decades ago are “a huge factor, and why Black people in particular are not voting,” Williams says. “So now, when we add legislation to make it more difficult to vote, to me that is why it’s really important. Do we want to have a healthy electorate or not? When we have a healthy electorate, we have policies that represent everyone.”
Historical events ripple through time: A growing body of research
To conduct her analysis, Williams used data from the Historical American Lynching Data Collection Project from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, which covers 1882 to 1930. She also used voter registration rolls from 2000 to 2012, and other academic and government data.
Williams focused on the historical lynching rate per 10,000 Black Americans during that roughly half century across 267 counties in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina. She analyzed those states because they ask voters to identify their race when registering.
“In a place like Lafayette County, Florida, there were eight lynchings during those years,” Williams explains in a 2020 video for the Economic Policy Institute, where she was an economist before joining RAND. “This means for every 1,000 Black people, one of them was lynched. Today, the Black voter registration rate is about 15% in that county. If those people hadn’t been killed, you would expect to see a Black voter registration rate of 55%.”
The relationship between historical lynchings and voter registration today that holds for Black voters doesn’t show for white voters.
“Further analyses suggest that this result is unlikely to be driven by education, earnings, incarceration rates of blacks, institutions that remained after slavery, geographic sorting, or contemporary barriers to voting,” Williams writes. Her forthcoming paper adds to a growing body of research investigating how violence and legislation from decades ago reverberates today.
Michigan State University economics and international relations professor Lisa Cook has found that violence in the decades after Reconstruction suppressed the patent output of Black inventors, writing that a “lynching signaled that personal security — and with it the freedom to work and innovate — was not guaranteed.”
Princeton University economics professor Ellora Derenoncourt, along with University of California, Berkeley economics professor Claire Montialoux, have shown how a minimum wage expansion in 1966 narrowed the earnings gap between Black and white workers throughout the 1970s.
Logan, the Ohio State professor, has linked higher taxes during Reconstruction — when the American South was decimated and needed funding to rebuild — with more violence against Black officeholders. Referring to Williams’ current work, Logan says: “This is not something I think a traditional economic historian would address. It speaks to the need to have diverse voices in the profession.”
Confederate Streets and Black-White Labor Market Differentials
Jhacova Williams. American Economic Association Papers and Proceedings, May 2021.
Minimum Wages and Racial Inequality
Ellora Derenoncourt and Clair Montialoux. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, February 2021.
Racial Segregation and Southern Lynching
Lisa Cook, Trevon Logan and John Parman. Social Science History, July 2018.
Political Participation in a Violent Society: The Impact of Lynching on Voter Turnout in the post-Reconstruction South
Daniel Jones, Werner Troesken and Randall Walsh. Journal of Development Economics, November 2017.
Violence and Economic Activity: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870–1940
Lisa Cook. Journal of Economic Growth, May 2014.