About the Author

Maya Sen is a political scientist and Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sen writes on issues involving the political economy of U.S. race relations, law and politics, and statistical methods. Her research has been published in journals such as the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics, and has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and other outlets. Her latest book, Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics (Princeton University Press), won the 2019 William H. Riker Prize for best book in political economy. She is currently working on a book on how American courts become politicized (under contract with Cambridge University Press).

Sen graduated in 2012 with a Ph.D. from the Department of Government, Harvard University. She also holds an A.M. in Statistics and an A.B. in Economics, both from Harvard University, and a J.D. from Stanford Law School, where she was a member of the Stanford Law Review.v

Matthew Blackwell is an Assistant Professor of Government at Harvard University and an affiliate of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. He studies political methodology, with a focus on dynamic causal inference, missing data, panel data, and social network analysis. His substantive interests include American politics, negative advertising, and historical political economy.

Book Description

Despite dramatic social transformations in the United States during the last 150 years, the South has remained staunchly conservative. Southerners are more likely to support Republican candidates, gun rights, and the death penalty, and southern whites harbor higher levels of racial resentment than whites in other parts of the country. Why haven’t these sentiments evolved or changed? Deep Roots shows that the entrenched political and racial views of contemporary white southerners are a direct consequence of the region’s slaveholding history, which continues to shape economic, political, and social spheres. Today, southern whites who live in areas once reliant on slavery—compared to areas that were not—are more racially hostile and less amenable to policies that could promote black progress. 

Highlighting the connection between historical institutions and contemporary political attitudes, the authors explore the period following the Civil War when elite whites in former bastions of slavery had political and economic incentives to encourage the development of anti-black laws and practices. Deep Roots shows that these forces created a local political culture steeped in racial prejudice, and that these viewpoints have been passed down over generations, from parents to children and via communities, through a process called behavioral path dependence. While legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act made huge strides in increasing economic opportunity and reducing educational disparities, southern slavery has had a profound, lasting, and self-reinforcing influence on regional and national politics that can still be felt today.

A groundbreaking look at the ways institutions of the past continue to sway attitudes of the present, Deep Roots demonstrates how social beliefs persist long after the formal policies that created those beliefs have been eradicated.

Behind the Book is brought to you by HKS Library & Research Services, in collaboration with the Office of Communications & Public Affairs. Special thanks to the Ash Center for original interview footage. If you have any requests, comments or suggestions, please contact us.

[Alessandra Seiter] The enslavement of African Americans ended 150 years ago. But does it still affect politics today? That's the question professors Maya Sen, Matthew Blackwell, and Avidit Acharya try to answer, in their book, Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics. Their findings demonstrate how historical institutions continue to shape modern, political attitudes. On this episode of Behind the Book, co-authors Sen and Blackwell sit down to discuss the lasting effects of slavery in the US, and how we can disrupt a 150 year legacy of political attitudes in the south and beyond. Deep Roots began with a question: what makes US politics exceptionally conservative, and to what extent can this be traced to America's past?

[Maya Sen] United States is a little bit more conservative than other western democracies. It's more conservative on things like religion, guns, incarceration. Just overall, is more conservative than countries in Europe, Japan, places such as this.

[Alessandra Seiter] The co-authors interest were inspired by a study of the sociology of West African citizens, living in areas affected by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That study found that individuals in those areas had a higher mistrust of outsiders. Professor Sen, Blackwell, and Acharya, wanted to explore this concept in the context of American slavery.

[Matthew Blackwell] I think the core findings of our book that whites, who today, live in parts of the south, that had high rates of slavery in 1860, are more conservative on a host of political attitudes, compared to whites that lived in parts of the south, that had low levels of slavery.

[Alessandra Seiter] In fact, the relationship is so strong, that it can be used to predict voting habits. In southern counties that had larger populations of slaves, white voters tend to embrace more conservative positions, than those in counties that had fewer slaves. But the authors found that on non-race related issues, the strong historical link between slavery and current political attitudes wasn't present.

[Matthew Blackwell] So in things like abortion, on things like gay rights, on the environment, they seem to be very similar.

[Alessandra Seiter] One popular theory for why racial animosity continues to be so high in these regions, is sometimes referred to as racial threat. Racial threat theorizes that as a minority racial group grows, the majority racial group reacts to this growth as a threat.

[Maya Sen] But actually, we don't really see that in our analysis, we don't see anything like that.

[Matthew Blackwell] No, in fact, if anything, we see the opposite. If there are two counties, one with lots of African Americans, and the other with very few African Americans, the whites that live with more black people tend to be more liberal.

[Alessandra Seiter] But how exactly does an institution that's been extinct for a century and a half, still have such an impact on contemporary politics? Professor Sen attributes it to the fact, that although slavery as an institution, ended with the Civil War, it left an imprint of apartheid and oppression in its wake, that carried through well into the 20th Century. One can point to a number of historical phenomena: the black codes during reconstruction, the conduct leasing system, and Jim Crow as vestiges of a system that relies heavily on economic exploitation.

[Maya Sen] Racial suppression that's sort of this racial hierarchy, went from something that was state sanctioned, and had the full force of the federal government and state governments in the form of slavery, to something that actually had to be more informally and kind of socially supported.

[Alessandra Seiter] So how do we move forward? How can we disrupt a 150 year old legacy of racial hierarchy in the south? The authors say that we can start by looking to policy.

[Maya Sen] The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was very effective in reducing regional differences in the south in terms of educational inequalities between blacks and whites. The Voting Rights Act is similar for voter turn out. After the Voting Rights Act, substantially larger numbers of African Americans are turning out to vote.

[Alessandra Seiter] Policy measures have led to some significant, concrete outcomes. But for addressing people's racial attitudes and beliefs, the authors say that we should turn to the grass roots.

[Maya Sen] Where policy interventions do a worst job, is in terms of changing peoples attitudes and beliefs.

[Alessandra Seiter] The book is Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics, written by Harvard professors Maya Sen and Matthew Blackwell, and Stanford professor, Avidit Acharya. It's published by Princeton University Press. This has been Behind the Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services, at the Harvard Kennedy School. Special thanks to the Houser Studio. Find past and future episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter @HKSLibrary, and visiting our website.