The Most Racist Places in America: A Clarification

In the midst of a discussion about race at BHL, some commenters have alluded to a now-famous paper identifying the most racist places in America, “Association between an Internet-Based Measure of Area Racism and Black Mortality,” published at PLOS One, by David H. Chae, et. al.

A discussion thread on the paper goes as follows (the second commenter is Jacob Levy, of McGill):

Wasn’t there a map of racist tweets posted over at Marginal Revolution recently that showed that there was just as much racism in the North as in the South.

(The West however seemed to be much less racist, even states like Arizona, Idaho and Utah

I think you mean this map of google searches:http://www.washingtonpost.com/… linked to here http://marginalrevolution.com/…

With a couple of exceptions (northern New Jersey, Rhode Island) this is approximately a map of the core of the slaveholding south plus the Appalachian belt that runs into PA and NY but where the Confederate flag is still a very, very common sight. (In PA, remember the old saying “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in the middle.”)

While I agree that measures something relevant, I think something like this map of the history of lynchings has priority over it:http://all-that-is-interesting… . “Just as much racism” in people’s hearts, maybe, but not just as much terror and tyranny.

I’m obliged by a promise I made to Matt Zwolinski not to comment at BHL any more, but I’m free to comment on BHL here.

So, just a quick clarification: Levy has misread the map indicating the “couple of exceptions.” I can’t seem to reproduce the study’s map here, but it’s easily visible in the study, which you can find by clicking the very first link at the top of this post.

The exception in question is not “northern New Jersey” but southwestern New Jersey, which includes Mercer, Monmouth, Burlington, Ocean, Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May counties (I’ve listed all of the southern counties, including the most eastward, because all of them extend into the western half of the state). More colloquially, it includes the “Pine Barrens,” which cut across Burlington, Camden, and Atlantic counties (but are centered in Burlington).

countymap_temp.gif (288×515)

Though officially a Union/free state, New Jersey was deeply split about slavery before and during the Civil War. Geographically (though not as a matter of political fact) parts of south Jersey are below the Mason-Dixon line, at least in this sense:

The Mason-Dixon line does not technically run through New Jersey, but if the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland were extended due east, it would run south of Penns Grove, north of Hammonton and just below Barnegat.

Though it may be apocryphal, it’s part of state folklore that the southern half of New Jersey was split between Quaker abolitionists and pro-slavery Copperheads. But I don’t have a source for that claim, and don’t know know whether it’s true. As it happens, the southern part of the state polled most heavily for Lincoln.

In any case, within the (populated parts of the) Pine Barrens, attitudes remain highly sympathetic to Dixie to this day. (There used to be a Robert E. Lee Roundtable of New Jersey, but I don’t think it exists any longer.) You can, for instance, expect virtually any bar you enter and any pickup truck you see in the Pine Barrens to display a Confederate flag. The Pine Barrens is not part of the Appalachian Belt that Levy mentions (it’s flatland), but the Confederate flag is, in my experience, far more common there than it is in that Belt. (I say that despite having had an uncomfortable encounter with a white supremacist biker gang in a bar in Lancaster, PA.)

Here’s a nice blast from the past for you. As it happens, the preceding article discusses Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s in various parts of New Jersey, but focuses on the town of Hamilton, which is in the south-central part of the state, in Mercer County, near Trenton. (The article comes from a website devoted to Trenton-area history.)

So the real exception to Levy’s point is not northern or southern New Jersey, but Rhode Island. That said, RI is a rather large exception to his generalization, and could use an explanation of some kind.

Afterthought, June 21, 2015: The clarification I was making was narrowly factual and nit-picky, but as I think about it, I have to say that I find the entire exercise of identifying “the most racist places in America” a dubious one, including the attempt to do so by the methodology laid out in the paper under discussion. It’s not really clear what the phrase is supposed to mean, and the methodological caveats listed at the end of the paper don’t really clarify anything. It’s as though the most sophisticated methods of contemporary social science were being devoted to discovering the applicability of a predicate (“most racist place in America!”) drawn from the lexicon of a TV game show.

In general, it seems to me that discussions of this sort lend themselves to a lot of pseudo-empirical handwaving that’s sometimes hard to avoid, but is probably best avoided. For instance, over the last two decades, I’ve driven across Pennsylvania both east and west via both Route 80 and Route 76 about twenty times, stopping in various towns along the way. (Back when I was married, my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, just outside of Scranton. A conclusive credential in this discussion, and a rare distinction no matter how you look at it.) Contrary to Levy, I wouldn’t say that the Confederate flag is “a very, very common sight” there. One sees it, to be sure, and encounters racially problematic attitudes to be sure, but “very, very common” is an exaggeration, at least as far as my experience is concerned.

Further, contrary to the saying he quotes, about Pennsylvania being “Alabama” sandwiched between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the study’s map indicates that there’s no difference between, say, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and central Pennsylvania, and also indicates that both Pennsylvanian cities are more racist than most of Alabama. Meanwhile, South Dakota turns out to racially benign, but given the terms of the study, that finding by definition cannot apply to racism against Native Americans, because what the study examines is Google searches involving the word “nigger” and its cognates. So if anti-Native racism in South Dakota turned out to be worse than anti-black racism in Pennsylvania, the study has no means of detecting or recording the fact.

All in all, the study raises more questions than it answers, and seems to me to involve a misdirection of attention. (To be fair, Levy wasn’t the one who brought it up.) 

One thought on “The Most Racist Places in America: A Clarification

  1. Pingback: Hummus Summit in Paterson (2) | Policy of Truth

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