Donald Trump’s election kicked off a cottage industry explaining his popularity among the wrong sort of white people: you know, blue-collar racists. But when the data showed that, on average, Trump supporters were actually quite wealthy, much of the pundit class acted shocked. And when it became clear that half of college-educated white people voted for Trump in 2016—and nearly half in 2020—it barely made the news.
If an Economist article that went viral recently is any indication, neither revelation made a dent in the conventional wisdom about who’s behind white supremacy in America. The article, by Elliott Morris, citing a research paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, claims that you can use math to prove that 21st-century reactionary politics come from poor whites who left the South looking for jobs a century ago.
It’s not hard to see why this piece got traction. It absolves lots of white people of any responsibility for white supremacy. It’s just truthy enough to become the kind of “everyone knows” canonical narrative that informs political strategies for a generation. But the math proving that racism comes from one specific class of people turns out to be fatally flawed! And it gets worse. By obscuring how white supremacy actually works, and perpetuating mistaken ideas of why it persists and spreads, this study can make it harder to fight. That leaves us all worse off. It’s the political equivalent of junk food.
Why write about this? I’ve been doing progressive and anti-racist politics in the South for 16 years. I’ve also worked in agriculture and manufacturing in the United States from California to Washington to the Midwest, New England, and the South. I’ve seen how racism plays a load-bearing role in business practices everywhere in this country. Different racist behaviors prevail in different regions. But the underlying logic of white supremacy is the same everywhere: People who aren’t white are inferior, dangerous, and have to be contained. However it’s expressed, racism is an emotional prop that some people use to feel they’re better than others.
But it’s also much more than that. It’s profitable. Racism divides workforces, keeping wages low. It drives up property values in “nice” (white) neighborhoods. It keeps more money flowing to majority-white schools. It squeezes people of color into precarious lives, making them easier to exploit. That keeps food, restaurants, and service work cheap. White supremacy isn’t just a bad habit, a holdover from the past, or a personality or cultural trait. It’s a business model right now.
"swipe left below to view more authors"Swipe →
The “Hunt for Hamas” Narrative Is Obscuring Israel’s Real Plans for Gaza
The “Hunt for Hamas” Narrative Is Obscuring Israel’s Real Plans for Gaza
So when I tell you this paper concerns me, I say that as an activist, as a dirty-jobs-haver, and as a scientist. It’s misdiagnosis of what white supremacy is. It closes off options for treatment, like multiracial labor organizing. That’s a powerful antidote to white supremacy. It impacts the people who sponsor racism at scale. So do laws that make it easier for guest workers to enter the US legally. But if we believe today’s racism is just an echo of racists from a century ago, then there’s nothing to do but complain and point our fingers!
This study gets its legitimacy from math. It’s not an opinion; it’s science! But it has a GIGO problem: garbage in, garbage out. The authors seem to have lost the South. They include Oklahoma: Southern-ish and variously Indian Territory or a free state, but never a slave state. But they leave out a slave territory (present-day New Mexico and Arizona) and five slave states (Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri). The authors claim that poor whites leaving home in 1900–40 brought racism with them—to places that were already pro-slavery. The model is rife with problems too extensive to get into here: attempts to control for preexisting racist attitudes before 1900, extractive industries, how poor inbound Southern migrants were, etc., are poorly thought out and/or impossible to verify. But the fact that authors wrote a whole paper about emigration from the South while apparently unable to find it on a map says enough.
If the authors had said, “Hey, maybe these places have a lot of racism now because they were already full of plantations by the Civil War. Ex-slaveowners are still the old money there, which gives them a lot of influence over social norms,” that might have made sense! Instead, they focussed their mathematical model on poor and middle-class whites who arrived later, when white supremacy was already entrenched.
Second, this paper takes on faith that poor and middle-class Southern white people are racist by nature. It requires deep illiteracy on Southern history to believe this. Wealthy white Southerners passed Jim Crow laws to keep the Black and poor white underclass divided. We’re so used to seeing Jim Crow’s aftermath that we forget to ask why those laws got passed in the first place. The South has long been deeply unequal. Time and again, Black and poor white Southerners teamed up to solve it. And time and again, all they got for it was brutality.
A biracial “Fusionist” coalition seized power in 1890s North Carolina and was successful at beating back the first wave of Jim Crow laws. So wealthy whites launched a coup d’état, massacring the democratically elected Black leadership in the Fusionist stronghold of Wilmington. They appointed their own handpicked team of racists to rule instead. That’s how Reconstruction ended in North Carolina. After emancipation, wealthy whites installed anti-miscegenation laws across the South. Why? Left to their own devices, white and Black Southerners just wouldn’t stop putting a ring on it.
In 1917 Oklahoma, the Green Corn Rebellion saw about a thousand Black, Seminole, Mvskoke, and poor white tenant farmers unite to protest the World War I draft. Their communities couldn’t feed themselves without their draft-aged men. In Depression-era Arkansas, Black and white sharecroppers teamed up to form the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. White landowners threatened, stalked, beat, and killed STFU members and evicted their families from the land, leaving them destitute on the rural backroads. FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration–then led by the supposedly progressive Henry Wallace—shrugged it off as the price of progress.
I’m not claiming that the South is secretly a magical place of interracial harmony. It’s not. I’m just offering some context on how white supremacy works in real life. It’s a top-down effort. The South didn’t just wake up one day with most whites unified by racism. It took a lot of work to get here! That work has prevailed all over the US, and continues to this day.
New York didn’t abolish slavery until 1834. When it finally did, a white supremacist mob spent a week burning down New York City. Northern settlers demonized Indigenous people and massacred them for their land. Abraham Lincoln approved the largest one-day mass execution in US history: the hanging of 38 Dakota men in December 1862, for mounting raids when the US’s failure to meet treaty commitments pushed their people to starvation. The idea that racism “spread” from the South requires the belief that it was previously unknown to the rest of the country. That belief, to put it mildly, is not supported by the evidence.
Perhaps the worst part of this “just-so story” about how racism spreads is that it distracts from how much racism and reactionary politics in today’s United States owe to employers’ reliance on undocumented labor. White supremacy has always been a naked money grab. Racist fear of Mexicans as “rapists and thieves” mirrors that targeting other ethnic groups. That fear is political. Stereotyping Black people as lazy, violent, and/or dirty helped keep slavery legal—even in the North, much later than today’s Americans realize. Anti-Black racism originating in that era still fuels overpolicing and underinvestment in Black Americans. But we miss the point if we imagine that racism is merely a relic of the past that won’t go away.
Racism as economic strategy is still alive. Today, racist stereotypes against immigrants fuel punitive immigration laws. Employers still get the workers, documented or not, that they want—and the more punitive our immigration laws are, the greater will be the proportion of those workers who are undocumented and thus afraid to go to the police when they’re cheated, trafficked, beaten, and worse. Thus, racism is load-bearing part of US business culture. I learned firsthand that in many industries, you don’t get promoted unless you parrot the leadership’s racist ideas back to them. Going to the same racist church as your boss is great for your job prospects. Racism, in other words, is the price of admission to much of white society. In a country where that’s the state of play right now, it’s bizarre to make mathematical models whose baseline assumption is that racism comes from the past.
One last point. The map of where Latino labor lives and works in the US today has a remarkable overlap with the Economist’s map showing where poor white Southerners migrated for work in the early 20th century. Why? Both groups have filled the same low-wage agriculture, construction, service, and mineral extraction jobs. There’s so much overlap, you have to wonder what the authors would have concluded if they’d plugged Latino immigrants into their model instead of poor whites. Would they really have argued that today’s reactionary politics come from immigrants spreading their conservative Catholic values?
In reality, the more an area relies on immigrant labor, the more its business class values punitive immigration laws—and the racism needed to justify them.
But it’s not just big business who benefits. Anyone who’s eaten food grown by undocumented labor (nearly all of it) or patronized at a restaurant staffed by undocumented cooks (most of them); hired an undocumented lawn mower or cleaning lady; or worn “made in the USA” clothes sewn by undocumented seamstresses has benefited from white supremacy. If you don’t understand that fixing our immigration laws is key to pushing back on white supremacy—or feel skittish about “those people” moving into your neighborhood (the property values!) or local schools (will adding classes in Spanish reduce funding available for my child?)—you are also part of the white supremacy problem. Because white supremacy isn’t just a lingering problem from our past. It’s still a living, breathing money issue now.
However, if I wanted to publish a just-so story—with mathematical proof!—that lets all of us “good” whites pat ourselves on the back and blame someone else for our nationwide white supremacy problem, I’d do exactly what these authors did. But all those good feelings won’t get to the root of the problem—or change the way we live with one another.