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The Bigot Belt

- November 19, 2008

bq. …the counties where Republican margins grew the largest tended to be predominantly white places in otherwise racially mixed states.

That is political scientist Eric Oliver, in this post at the Freakonomics blog. He is complicating the story of this much-discussed map in the New York Times, which showed the counties that swung toward McCain relative to 2004:


The story, he argues, is not about the composition of these countries, so much as the location of these counties:

bq. 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.

This account dovetails with some recent analysis from Joost van Beek. To get around the ecological fallacy of using county-level attributes to infer individual-level behavior (see Eric’s post for more on this), he looks at the state-level exit polls. Exit polls are not perfect, as he notes — and they force the analyst to look at states rather than countries — but they do have the advantage of providing individual-level data.

van Beek’s map of the white vote in 2008 vs. 2004 looks like this:


The “bigot belt” disappears, being replaced simply with big shifts in a couple Southern states — namely, those states where white populations coexist with large black populations. Charles Franklin’s graph shows something similar:


Oliver’s concluding paragraph is a fitting summation, which also fits with some of my previous posts on the election, which urged against overinterpreting the election’s outcome:

bq. 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.