Is the South More Racist Than Other Parts of the US?

Michael Harriot, The Root

I was born and raised in South Carolina, attended college in Alabama and—except for a few stints in Washington, D.C. (which is technically below the Mason-Dixon Line, but not considered “Southern”), and periods living outside the U.S.—have always lived in the South.

I often hear people who live in other states, especially in the Northeast, offhandedly demean the South as backward, less educated and—more important—racist, as if the rest of the country has an invisible deflector shield that eliminates white supremacy. But instead of reminding naysayers and detractors that it was places like Alabama and Mississippi that made it possible for blacks to vote, attend the college of their choice and sit wherever they wanted on the bus, I decided to examine the issue with data and statistics. I am not oblivious to the history of the South, but I wanted to find out whether or not it was true. Is the South really more racist?

To answer the question, I took an objective set of criteria and dissected the information. I looked at the available information on education, employment, economics, housing and politics to find out if the South is really more racist than anywhere else.

First, we should set some parameters. To determine which states compose the loosely defined term “the South,” I used a Survey Monkey poll conducted by the statistics-based site FiveThirtyEight and came up with this conclusive list of Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. I don’t actually consider Florida to be a part of the South because they be on some other shit, but … statistics.

I also don’t want the discussion to extend too far in the past, so I only used post-2000 data from widely accepted sources. None of it came from Breitbart or some unknown WordPress site. I also simplified the data to statistics referring to African Americans and white Americans because it is easily obtainable across the board and also because … The Root.

Finally, we need to clarify what we mean by “racist.” We are not talking about whether the individuals in the South are more racist. That is impossible to know. White people in the North or Midwest might simply be better at concealing their feelings. We want to discuss the measurable impact of white supremacy to see if inequality is quantifiably higher in the South.


The South has the worst schools. Full stop. Almost every education ranking shows it. Only one Southern state is ranked in the top 10 of U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 K-12 education rankings (Virginia), and only one more (Kentucky) ranks in the top half of the country. But this has nothing to do with racism. If everyone in South Carolina (No. 48) is receiving a terrible education, it might simply mean that people in the state are poorly educated—or, as we call it in South Carolina, “unlearnt.”

Instead, I examined the difference in the black and white 2014-2015 high school graduation rates, as provided by the National Center for Education Statistics. The average graduation gap is 13 percentage points, meaning that the graduation rates for whites are, on average, 13 percentage points higher.[1]

Among the Southern states, only Florida had a graduation-rate gap below the national average (I told y’all … ). One-third of the states with single-digit gaps in graduation rates are from the South.

Numerous studies have shown that—regardless of the tax base—the more black students enrolled in a school, the lower the funding. Economic segregation still exists. But the percentage of black students in the South who attend schools that are 90-100 percent black is lower in the South than in any other region, according to a 2014 study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project (pdf). The Northeast was the only region where the number of segregated schools has increased since 1968.

The data shows that the average K-12 student in the South is more likely to receive an education closer to that of his or her white counterparts than in any other region in the country. It might not be great, but it is equal.


As with education, it is not enough to simply look at the black employment rate. Instead, I analyzed 2016’s fourth-quarter employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Current Population Survey, as presented by the Economic Policy Institute, to determine the difference between the South’s black employment statistics and white job numbers.

The average unemployment rate for white people nationwide for the latter part of 2016 was 4.7. White people in the South had a slightly lower unemployment rate of 3.93. Nationally, the black unemployment rate was 8.2, but slightly lower in the South at 7.99. The numbers show that Southern blacks are slightly less likely than their white counterparts to be jobless.

The black unemployment rate nationwide was 2.1 times the white unemployment rate. But in the South, the rate averaged out to 2.05, again showing that, in Southern states, blacks are hired slightly more often than the national average. In addition, of the 18 states with a black unemployment rate lower than 10 percent, 11 were Southern states.

Criminal Justice

According to a 2016 study by the Sentencing Project’s Color of Justice, five of the 12 Southern states were above the national average in the number of black men they incarcerated per 100,000 residents (Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Kentucky).

However, I did not simply look at the raw numbers to determine where states stand on criminal-justice issues. Some states are simply tougher on crime across the board. As the Sentencing Project explains:

We note that the states with the highest ratio of disparity in imprisonment are generally those in the northeast or upper Midwest, while Southern states tend to have lower ratios. The low Southern ratios are generally produced as a result of high rates of incarceration for all racial groups. For example, Arkansas and Florida both have a black/white ratio of imprisonment considerably below the national average of 5.1:1 (3.8:1 and 3.6:1, respectively). Yet both states incarcerate African Americans at higher than average rates, 18% higher in Arkansas and 15% higher in Florida. But these rates are somewhat offset by the particularly high white rates, 61% higher than the national average in Arkansas and 63% higher in Florida.

While it is true that Southern states incarcerate more black people per capita than the rest of the country, the numbers show that the South imprisons more people period.

Maybe the South’s criminal-justice system isn’t quantifiably more racist, but everyone knows that police officers in the South don’t play. We’ve all seen TheDukes of Hazzard.

OK, here is the part where I explain mathematical stuff and whatnot:

Using data from Mapping Police Violence, I took state-by-state statistics for the average number of people killed per million by police in each state and compared it with the average number of black people per million killed in each state. I used the difference between the two to measure whether law-enforcement officers are more likely to take black lives in Southern states than anywhere else.

Throughout the country between January 2013 and June 2017, police killed about 3.96 citizens for every million in the population. In Southern states, the average was slightly higher, at 4.02 people per million, but while more than 9.38 out of every million black citizens were killed by police nationwide, blacks were killed more than a third less often by Southern cops (6.65 per 1 million).

The evidence shows that blacks are killed by law-enforcement officials at disproportionately higher rates than whites across the country, but surprisingly, the rate is much lower in the South.


Many Southern states have made it difficult to vote through voter-ID restrictions and voter-suppression efforts. Plus, Southern states are generally under Republican control, which would seemingly result in fewer black elected officials and fewer black voters, right?

Not so fast, my friend.

Of the 52 African-American members serving in the 115th Congress, 22 hail from the 12 Southern states. In a 2015 survey by the National Council of State Legislatures (pdf), although most state legislatures nationwide were less than 9 percent black, Southern state legislatures were 17 percent black.

This phenomenon may be due to the fact that the South’s black population tends to register and vote more than other areas of the country. Nationally, 65.3 percent of African Americans registered to vote in the 2016 election, according to the U.S. census, but the number was higher for Southern black voters (69.6 percent). While 55.9 percent of the black voting-age population voted in the 2016 election countrywide, 59.2 percent of blacks in the South cast their ballots in the last national election.


Because the cost of living varies across the country, it is difficult to compare economic inequality by simply measuring raw dollars. According to U.S. census numbers, in 2016 the median income for whites was $61,858, but it was $39,490 for people who identified as black. The median incomes for Southern whites and Southern blacks in 2016 were $58,209 and $38,601, respectively. So nationally, blacks earned about 63 cents for every dollar that whites earned, but in the South, blacks earned about 66 cents per white dollar.

Furthermore, according to, of the top 10 states with high black homeownership, nine were in the South. In Forbes magazine’s 2015 list of the cities where blacks are doing the best economically, Southern cities made up 13 of the 15 on the list.

Based on all of the objective evidence, African Americans in the South are closer to whites economically and politically and in education and employment. The opportunities aren’t equal, but there is less of a measurable racial divide in the Southern states than there is nationwide.

So Why Do People Think the South Is Racist?

There may be a number of reasons. It is possible that many people still think of the South as “country” and ascribe the stereotypes associated with rural areas to the South. But seven of the 10 blackest cities in the U.S. are in the South, and nine of the 20 biggest metropolises in America are Southern cities. More than 68 percent of people who live in the South reside in urban areas, according to 2010 U.S. census data.

It may be that the legacy of Jim Crow, segregation and slave owning may still linger in some people’s memories. It might be that the South has earned that reputation because racism is more blatant in Southern areas. There are more hate groups in the South. The Charlottesville, Va., Unite the Right rally happened in a Southern state. The White Lives Matter march happened in Tennessee. They bombed a church in Alabama.

But those blatant displays of racism sometimes obscure the fact that there are people across the United States who politely tuck their racism in their pockets every morning. They might not yell the n-word, but they discriminate in the hiring process. Maybe they’ve never burned a cross, but they don’t want black children in their schools or neighborhood. Perhaps it depends on how you prefer your racism—Southern-fried or unseasoned.

And none of this is to say that the South is a utopia of people united in brotherhood. It simply is not demonstrably more racist than anywhere else in the country. It is not more racist. It is just racist 

Like America.

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