Desmond Ang, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, is an applied economist who studies the intersection of race, education, and government. His work includes research on the impacts of police-involved killings—like that of George Floyd—on the educational and psychological well-being of children and on the political engagement of underserved communities.
Amid recent debate over the role of media in fueling racial injustice, Ang focused his research lens on a century-old trigger of white-supremacist violence, a brutally racist movie called The Birth of a Nation. He measured the wave of lynchings, race riots, and Ku Klux Klan recruitment that occurred in counties where the movie was shown during a five-year national roadshow from 1915 to 1919. He found that the film incited significant increases in racial violence—roadshow counties were five times more likely to have a lynching or race riot and three times more likely to have a Klan chapter after the movie arrived—and these effects persist in those areas even today. Ang thought that studying the dangerous influence of that hugely successful film could help people understand and combat current hate crimes and violence. His working paper, “The Birth of a Nation: Media and Racial Hate,” is under revision for the American Economic Review.
Ang answers questions about what he learned.
Q: Why would a silent movie that looks almost like caricature today still have relevance for those who think about political violence in the 21st century? What made you want to study it?
First, I would say that The Birth of a Nation was a massive cultural landmark in American history. It was the first movie ever screened at the White House and is widely credited with the birth of Hollywood as we know it. It remains one of the highest grossing movies of all time and has been seen by an estimated 200 million people. So, I do think that there is a lot of value even as a historical exercise, to see the impact of this movie on the rise of the Klan a hundred years ago.
That said, there’s this fundamental question that we’re grappling with today, which is what role has media played in the rise of hate crimes and mass violence in recent years. And the issue is that today’s media is both highly segmented and diffuse. There’s so much choice that it becomes hard to say whether media is causing certain behaviors or simply reflecting the preferences of its audience. At the same time, media is so diffuse that for some of these big events—like former President Trump’s tweets or speeches—it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t heard what he said or tweeted, which is what we need to be able to estimate media’s impact.
By going back in time, to the release of America’s first blockbuster, it’s much easier to isolate these causal effects because there were far fewer sources of competing media. The Birth of a Nation was the big movie for several years and while everyone wanted to see it, not everyone could. And even people who were able to watch the film could only do so during limited windows, when the movie visited their town. So it’s a much cleaner setting for answering this question about media’s impact on racial prejudice.
Q: You looked specifically at the counties where the movie was shown across the country from 1915 to 1919. How did you find that data? Was this taking place just in the South or nationwide?
To figure out where the movie was shown, I searched digitized historical newspapers for theater advertisements for the film. What I found was that the movie wasn’t just shown in the South or areas that you might think were the most racist. Rather, the roadshow traveled all over the country—something like 600 plus counties in every state except for Kansas, where it was banned by the governor until the mid-1920s. Newspaper estimates at the time suggest that nearly 50 percent of adults saw the film in Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans. Obviously, those cities are located in very different areas, and even then they had very different political leanings. But once the movie came to town, people (predominantly white people) turned out in droves. Something like 10 million people saw the movie in the first two years. To put that in perspective, the total U.S. adult population at the time was something like 60 million people.
Q: Your conclusions start with the near term, during and soon after the film was shown. What differences did you document in lynchings and race riots in counties where the move was screened compared with those where it was not shown?
With the movie advertisement data, we know exactly the date the film arrived in a given county. And what you see is a big spike in lynchings and race riots in the month of the film’s arrival. Counties were about five times more likely experience a lynching or riot during that month. These are pretty extreme and rare events, so you could imagine that the film also triggered other more common forms of racial violence or discrimination. Unfortunately, the historical data on those outcomes is just not comprehensive enough for me to measure those effects.
Q: You also looked at the impact in recruitment for the Ku Klux Klan. Many of us think of the KKK as an outgrowth of Reconstruction right after the Civil War. But you attribute its rebirth in the 1920s to the movie. How did you track that?
It’s a crazy story. The original KKK, the one founded during Reconstruction and depicted in the film, was actually disbanded by the late 1800s. There was no KKK in existence when the movie premiered in early 1915. Then about six months later, the Klan was revived by a Methodist preacher named William Simmons. What’s incredible is that a lot of the practices of the revived KKK were essentially inventions of the film. The original Klan didn’t wear white hooded robes as uniforms. They also didn’t burn crosses. But The Birth of a Nation presented both practices as traditions of original Klan. Then when Simmons revived the group, he burned a cross (the first recorded instance of cross-burning in the U.S.) and had everyone wear these white robes. Both practices are synonymous with the Klan, even today. So historians have long credited the movie with inspiring the rebirth of the KKK, but I wanted to test this hypothesis and measure how much of the Klan’s support could be attributed to the movie.
I think one of the important takeaways from The Birth of the Nation is the realization that the Klan didn’t exist when the film was released. A hundred years later, they’re probably the most well-known embodiment of white supremacist ideology in America.
The way the paper does this is by leveraging the fact that when The Birth of a Nation was released, a good percentage of counties—something like 40 percent—didn’t have movie theaters. So these areas just couldn’t even show the movie, even if people there wanted to see it. Because of this unique historical accident—the fact that this insanely popular blockbuster came out before the infrastructure really existed to handle it—I’m able to compare areas that, except for whether they happened to have a theater, were really similar on all other dimensions that we might think would be related to support for white supremacist ideology or organizations.
What I find, consistent with the anecdotal evidence, is that The Birth of a Nation played a huge role in driving support for the KKK. Counties that showed The Birth of a Nation were two to three- times more likely to have a Klan chapter in the 1920s and 1930s, when membership was as high as 4 million people, or about 15 percent of the eligible population. These areas also had more Klan chapters and members per capita. So overall, it seems like the movie played a huge role in the boosting the popularity of the Klan, something William Simmons himself acknowledged.
Q: How long did the effects of The Birth of a Nation last in counties where it was shown? Can you still measure the impact even today? What have those long-term effects been, in terms of racial violence and recruitment to white-supremacist organizations?
These effects persist today. Counties that showed the film are still more likely to have Klan chapter or other white supremacist hate group in the 21st century. They also continue to experience higher rates of hate crimes against African Americans and other minority groups. It’s obviously a pretty scary result and speaks to media’s potential ability not simply to incite racial violence in the short-term but also to galvanize the formation of hate-based organizations that then persist over time, even over a century in this case.
Q: We tend to think today of media impact on politics as flowing mainly from polarized social media and partisan broadcast outlets. You have focused on what was considered entertainment media. Why is that distinction important?
I think it’s important because it speaks to the potential unintended consequences of media. With social media or slanted news, it’s often the case that people are selecting into certain media precisely because it validates their preferences or beliefs. That’s not to say those forms of media have no effect on their behavior—there’s increasingly evidence that it does—but there’s a deliberateness there on the part of the viewer that is different with a movie like The Birth of a Nation.
By today’s standards the movie is just over-the-top with racial stereotypes and animus, but it’s important to note that that wasn’t the case back then. A lot of people—the vast majority I would venture—didn’t go to see The Birth of a Nation because they hated Black people or because they wanted to see the latest racist propaganda. They went because it was this huge spectacle with big action scenes and an epic plot—the same reasons we go to see movies today.
And in that light, it’s important to consider the possibility that we’re internalizing all sorts of subtle messages from popular entertainment today, and that a hundred years from now, we’ll look back and realize all the ways that’s affected society and culture. Alan Moore, the creator of the graphic novel Watchmen, at one point said something to the effect of how The Birth of a Nation was the origin point for all our superhero movies today—that these movies essentially are extensions of our collective fascination with white men in capes “saving” the world. And I think that’s something we should interrogate–the idea that these seemingly harmless stories can have serious, if unintended, consequences.
Q: Do you see a continuum from The Birth of a Nation through to the racial and political extremism we are seeing today?
You always want to be careful about extrapolating too much, especially given the changes in media technology and the racial and cultural landscape over the past century. But I certainly think there are some similarities. One thing we saw with Trump and the U.S. Capitol riot is the idea that media can serve as this common reference and coordination point to bring together extremists. It can also normalize and elevate fringe (or even defunct, in the case of the KKK) organizations that then go on to persist and grow over time. I don’t know that most of us would have known about Proud Boys or QAnon if it weren’t for Trump. However, those organizations probably aren’t just going to go away now that he is no longer in office or on Twitter. If anything, it seems like the opposite may happen. And so again, I think one of the important takeaways from The Birth of the Nation is the realization that the Klan didn’t exist when the film was released. A hundred years later, they’re probably the most well-known embodiment of white supremacist ideology in America.
Original movie poster for 'The Birth of a Nation' showing in Seattle. Library of Congress
A reproduction of the advertisement which appeared daily in the El Paso Herald during the week prior to the movie's run at the Texas Grand Theater in 1916. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
The marquee of the Republic Movie Theatre featuring the movie, The Birth of a Nation. Flushing, New York. Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG