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Non-Hispanic White vote for John McCain 2008 according to National Exit Polls
Red = 100% for McCain
Blue = 100% for Obama

As we come up to the day celebrating American independence from the Britain there will be the standard revelries and reflections. Personally, I have no problem with that. A modicum of patriotism seems healthy in all, and if appropriately channeled a surfeit is often useful in the populace as a way to maintain civic engagement. That being said I did admit that in the positive and descriptive sense I am far more ambivalent about the consequences and rationale for the rebellion than I was as a child. I don’t accept that the American revolution was indisputably about Virginia gentry who wished to avoid financial ruin, New England fundamentalists yearning for oppression of Quebecois Catholics, or upcountry Scots-Irish chafing at the bit to explode into the western hinterlands, heretofore restrained by the Empire. But I believe that this narrative is as true as the story I was told as a child about an unjust and oppressive British monarchy battling the cause for the cause of freedom and liberty. When Patrick Henry declared ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’, it was not a universal declaration. It was implicitly a call to arms for the rights of white male property holders in the context of colonial Virginia. This is not a palatable message for elementary school age children, so such subtle but true details are neglected in the standard narrative.

Albion's Seed But the point of this post is not to re-litigate the American revolution. Rather, looking at the comments below I think it is time to reemphasize that American history needs to be thought of in plural terms. There was no one American revolution, but American revolution s. Without acknowledging this reality a plausible representation of the past can not be constructed. Our comprehension is limited by the tendency to back project a relatively homogeneous and unitary contemporary cultural and political union back two centuries. But to understand the disparate revolutions one must understand the disparate Americas.

In 2013 when we talk about “many Americas” we often conceive of it in coarse racial or regional terms. There is a “black America” and a “white America.” There is the South and the North. With the emphasis on racial identity politics, and to a lesser extent class, in elite discourse the deeper strands of historical difference rooted in the foundations of the original American colonies have been hidden from us. These older filaments of identity are outlined in historical works such as David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in the America and Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America. A true typology of socio-cultural difference is essential toward understanding how and why the past unfolded as it did, but they are also illuminating in relation to patterns of the present.

For example, Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is a contemporary updating of the standard geographic typology. The map I generated above from exit poll data outlines broadly a major consequence of the past and present fissures of the American nationality: white Americans tend to vote very differently. In the Deep South to a good approximation to be white is to be a Republican, and vote for Republicans. In contrast, in Greater New England there is a slight tilt toward the Democratic party among white voters. When you aggregate white voters nationally there is a tendency for it to lean toward the Republican party, but this masks deep regionalism. In Vermont 31% of whites voted for John McCain in 2008. In Alabama that figure was 88%.

And so it has always been. In the 1856 election the Republicans contested for the presidency, and as you can see on the map to the left only the Yankee regions supported their candidate. The waxing and waning of political power of the various American parties over time has to a large extent been the function of shifting alliances between distinct “sections” of the American nation. In the period before the Civil War Greater New England was isolated by an alliance between the South and portions of the Lower North bound together by culture and economics. Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, might have notionally been Midwestern Northern states, but they were divided between “Yankee” and “Butternut” (from the Upper South) cultural zones. It was from the Butternut regions of these border states where much of the anti-war sentiment in the North was localized during the Civil War. In contrast New York City may not have been settled from the South, but its cosmopolitan mercantile elite had long had a tense relationship with the New Englanders who had begun to dominate much of upstate New York and had pushed into Long Island as well as elements of Manhattan society. On top of that the port of New York had a relatively close economic relationship with the South.

In other words, to understand the true texture of regional alliances and dynamics one must be cognizant of both deep historical contingencies rooted in cultural affinity, and, the exigencies of contemporary economic needs. It is difficult for me to believe that New England’s ultimately successful challenge of Southern political hegemony leading up to 1860 was not bound up in its economic dynamism, which began to tear apart the north-south connections which tied states such as Pennsylvania with the Upper South, and replaced them with east-west lines of transport and communication via rail, canal, and telegraphy. Similarly, the rise of the “Sunbelt” in the 20th century was contingent upon technological and medical revolutions which closed the quality of life chasm between North and South.

All this is not to deny a common American sense of nationhood which has evolved since the tenuous links of the days of the Articles of Confederation. But regionalism, which has both a physical and temporal aspect, is neglected at one’s peril in terms of understanding the political and social patterns of the American republic. There are two ways in which regionalism was often transcended. One was via class, as populists attempted to overcome ethnic and regional divisions against robber barons and bourbons alike. But another was race. The 1830s saw the rise of a Democratic hegemony in national politics, based in the South and its Butternut Diaspora, but with northern auxiliaries of immigrant white ethnics in large cities (German Catholics and the Irish) and the non-Yankee zones of settlement in Pennsylvania and New York. The Democratic party in this period was simultaneously both populist and racialist, expanding voting rights to all white males, but in some cases explicitly barring blacks in Northern states from the right to vote (as opposed to the implicit bar via property qualifications). The modern American cultural consensus which speaks of a white America and black America is in some ways a morally inverted resurrection of this concept, where whites are viewed as a homogeneous whole to a rough and ready approximation.

Credit: Matthew Hutchins

The problem with this view is that it is both wrong on a descriptive and moral sense. It is wrong descriptively because where black Americans have a dominant coherent national culture with ultimate roots in the South (though there have long been Northern black communities, these populations have been reshaped by the Great Migration out of the South), whites do not. To put it plainly, a privileged White Anglo-Saxon Protestant born in an upper middle class family in the northern shore suburbs of Boston is fundamentally different from a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant born in a working class family in rural West Virginia. And it is unjust because a uniformity and interchangeability of all white Americans neglects the reality that the privileged accrued to the former are not accrued to the latter. In the end what is true of whites is also true of non-whites. It seems blind to assume that a demographically expansive “Hispanic” population will remain as politically and socially homogeneous as black Americans, because of their original regional and cultural diversity (e.g., Texas Hispanics and California Latinos have long had distinct subcultures).

Of course don’t tell this to the standard press and pundit class, who remain wedded to cartoonish cultural and historical algebras.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Culture, Regionalism 
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A questioner below was curious if vocabulary test differences by ethnic and region persist across income. There’s a problem with this. First, the INCOME variable isn’t very fine-grained (there is a catchall $30,000 or greater category). Second, it doesn’t seem to control for inflation. But, there is a variable, DEGREE, which asks the highest level of education attained. I used this to create a “college” and “non-college” category (i.e., do you have a bachelor’s degree or not). Because of sample size considerations I removed some of the ethnic groups, but replicated the earlier analysis.

Below are two tables. One shows the mean vocab score for region and ethnicity (for whites) for those without college educations, and another shows those with college educations. I decided to generate a correlation over the two rows, even though it sure isn’t useful as a quantitative statistical measure because of the small number of data points. Rather, I just wanted a summary of the qualitative result. The short answer is that the average vocabulary difference seems to persist across educational levels (the exception here is the “German” ethnicity).

Mean WORDSUM Score by Ethnicity and Region
No college education




German 6.05 5.81 5.79 6.11
Eastern Europe 6.17 6.16 6.18 6.29
Scandinavian 6.35 5.97 6.23 6.35
British 6.6 6.21 6.02 6.57
Irish 6.66 5.83 5.69 6.58
Italian 6 5.85 5.8 6.18
College educated




German 8.03 7.48 7.63 7.33
Eastern Europe 7.7 7.37 7.5 8.09
Scandinavian 8.5 7.82 7.86 7.92
British 8.44 8.06 7.76 7.95
Irish 8.03 7.79 7.39 7.59
Italian 7.45 7.75 7.6 7.87
Correlation of college and non-college
German 0.08
Eastern Europe 0.92
Scandinavian 0.57
British 0.70
Irish 0.57
Italian 0.40
• Category: Science • Tags: Data, Data Analysis, GSS, I.Q., Regionalism 
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Aside from transient memes such as Jesusland sectional sentiment tends to be implicit and remain below the surface, especially outside of “Dixie”, in the United States today. In a nation the size of a continent and populated by over 300 million we first start with an aggregation, as if we’re just another nation-state. This is evident when we compare how the United States is doing compared to…France, or the United Kingdom, or Denmark. Except the Russian Federation the proper point of comparison for all the large European nations is probably California. If we do disaggregate the United States first we generally start with race, and then perhaps move on to politics. But many of these variables are rooted in deeper sectional identities, which were much more salient in the early republic. Many of the arguments about the nature of the Civil War in terms of whether it was “about” slavery or economics or states rights misses the bigger picture that all of these issues contributed to, and emerged out of, an organic historical process where the new republic crystallized as a divergent set of regional interests which predate the founding.

Here is an fascinating section from the New England polemicist and minister Theodore Parker from The great battle between slavery and freedom:

In 1850…Arkansas had 97,402 white persons under twenty, and only 11,050 attending school; while of 210,831 whites of that age in Michigan, 112,175 were at school or college. Last year, Michigan had 132,234 scholars in her public common schools. In 1850, Arkansas contained 64,787 whites over twenty, – but 16,935 of these were unable to read and white; while, out of 184,240 of that age in Michigan, only 8,281 were thus ignorant, – of these, 3009 were foreigns; while, of the 16,935 illiterate persons of Arkansas, only 37 were born out of that State. The Slave State had only 47,852 persons over twenty who could read a word; while the free State had 175,959. Michigan had 107,943 volumes in “libraries other than private,” and Arkansas 420 volumes….

Arkansas and Michigan were of particular interest because these were old frontier states which were settled primarily (at least initially in the case of Michigan, before 20th century industrialization) by whites from particular regions of the United States; the Old South in the case of Arkansas, and New England and upstate New York in the case of Michigan. A new paper, Black and White Fertility, Differential Baby Booms: The Value of Civil Rights, has some old Census data which I thought would be of interest. In particular, they report fertility and years of education for a given Census region. Here’s a map which shows the divisions:

Below are two types of plots. One shows the absolute values and the other a ratio compared to the national mean. The data are children born and years of schooling. Please note that background variables are not controlled for, so regions with lots of young people will naturally have lower years of schooling, and regions which are adult migrant magnets may have inflated years of school.

Some comments:

1) Migration patterns probably explain some of the patterns. The Pacific region seems to have been the most well educated for much of the past century, but I wonder if that is a function of th selective migration of people from the east.

2) There has been a radical convergence in the years of education. When Theodore Parker was writing there was a big gap between the North and the South which no longer exists. But history matters for institutions, and most elite universities remain skewed in their regional distributions.

3) Looking at the ratio of regional fertility to the national mean it seems like you see evidence for different points of demographic transition.

You can see the data here as a Google Doc .

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Over at Ezra Klein’s weblog his research assistant had a post up on the black-white academic achievement gap by state. This section was of interest:

…Among southern states, the deep South, where one might expect to see the largest gaps, does not stand out, with Alabama and Mississippi doing roughly as well as the Carolinas or Tennessee. Hawaii and West Virginia report the smallest gaps in both surveys. Both have notably small black populations, which provide less opportunity for de facto school segregation.

Why might one expect the largest gaps there? Obviously the history of Southern racial polarization, and the exceptional nature of the subjugation of blacks by whites. But one thing that I have seen in the General Social Survey over the years is that it is in the American South that blacks and whites exhibit the least cultural difference in attitudes and outlook. This should not be that surprising, local culture matters a great deal implicitly in a sense which is only evident once you leave your familiar context.The Second Great Awakening, which reshaped the South religiously as a region where evangelical Protestantism was dominant among the population, influenced both black slaves and non-elite whites disproportionately.

These realities would be less surprising to people if they were more conscious of the patterns in the United States which derive from different streams in Anglo-Saxon folkways, as outlined in books such as Albion’s Seed and The Cousin’s Wars. Going back to educational attainment, the GSS vocabulary test, Wordsum, has the lowest scores in the South for both blacks and whites. On a more fine grained level, let’s look at mean Wordsum score broken down by region and ethnicity. The regions are as defined by the Census divisions. I wanted to look at ethnicity, as well as race. White and black categories are straightforward. British = Scottish, Welsh and English ancestry. Irish might seem to straightforward, but I think it’s pretty obvious that it throws into one category two social-cultural groups, the Catholic Irish and the Scots-Irish. First, here’s a line graph illustrating the variation by region for mean Wordsum score:


I chose a line graph so you could see that all the groups track each other. If you’ve followed my writing over the years you’ll have seen the pattern before; New England is the most academically inclined region, and the Gulf Coast of the Deep South the least. Below is a table with the mean scores by region, broken down by ethnic and racial group.

New England Mid Atlantic E N Central W N Central S Atlantic E S Central W S Central Mountain Pacific
British 7.42 7.1 6.63 6.85 6.53 6.18 6.89 6.9 7.14
Irish 7.12 7.03 6.14 6.48 6.11 5.64 6.01 6.51 6.95
German 7.66 6.31 6.02 6.37 6.19 5.84 6.15 6.41 6.39
Black 5.19 5.19 5 5.29 4.61 4.38 4.74 4.39 5.21
White 6.64 6.52 6.11 6.36 6.06 5.46 5.95 6.47 6.44
Black – White Gap
Gap % 22% 20% 18% 17% 24% 20% 20% 32% 19%
Gap Abs 1.45 1.33 1.11 1.07 1.45 1.08 1.21 2.08 1.23

A quick note: sample sizes for blacks in the Mountain region and New England are very small. So ignore that. Rather, observe that the black-white gap is pretty similar in the Mid Atlantic and the E S Central in a proportional scale (whites do about 20% better), but it is smaller in an absolute sense in the latter case. That’s because whites in that region of the country do rather badly, not that blacks do well.

The correlation between black and white mean values of Wordsum is 0.63, which means that one can predict 40% of the variation in the regional differences of one race by the variation of the other. Here’s a correlation matrix with the ethnic groups:

Mean Wordsum by region correlation matrix
Irish German Black
British 0.92 0.79 0.67
Irish 0.72 0.71
German 0.44

This is making concrete in a simple statistic what you saw on the line graph; the between regional patterns are significant and transcend ancestry groups (though I suspect that the high correlation between the British and Irish categories in the GSS has to do in large part with the fact that the two overlap a great deal today with intermarriage). Of course you might wonder if this applies to anything else. As I said, it is clear in relation to cultural issues that region matters a lot. Abortion has been one issue with relatively little change over the years in the GSS. The correlation in opinion by region between blacks and whites as to whether women should be able to have an abortion for any reason is about 0.80. Here are the correlations for the ethnic groups:

Abortion on demand correlation matrix
Irish German Black
British 0.86 0.72 0.62
Irish 0.67 0.80
German 0.67

More plainly, you can see support for abortion on demand by region for whites and blacks, and how much it varies within races and between regions:

Support for abortion on demand
Region White Black
New England 51 41
Mid Atlantic 47 44
E N Central 36 40
W N Central 34 34
S Atlantic 38 36
E S Central 26 21
W S Central 34 26
Mountain 42 52
Pacific 54 48
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Data Analysis, Regionalism 
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I have some posts on my other weblog about the way regionalism played out in this election. The electoral college map flip; drift?, Where Obama overperformed & underperformed and The Great White Sort. Steve points out the relevance of Affordable Family Formation and the Dirt Gap. It seems likely that we’re entering into a very ideologically polarized and sectional period; likely narrow flips back and forth. Looking at state level exit polls can only say so much. I would be willing to bet that a survey of white voters in the Tampa area, where Midwestern retirees congregate, would show Obama gains, while northern Florida whites would resemble those in the rest of the South. This is why I think Florida turned out to be a wash in the white vote.

P.S. If you haven’t read Albion’s Seed, and these sorts of patterns interest you, you need to read it. It adds a lot of insight. It is handy to know what the “Western Reserve” was, and why it matters today. Or why there is a Portland, OR, and Portland, ME, and a Salem, OR, and Salem, MA.

• Category: Science • Tags: Politics, Regionalism 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"