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How the migration of Southern whites in the 20th century shaped America's landscape


In the early part of the 20th century, the Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the South for urban areas in the North. Now a new study sheds light on another great migration. Between 1900 and 1940, about 5 million white Southerners also left the region, and the study shows how the political and cultural influence of this migration continues to be felt today. My colleague Michel Martin spoke to Samuel Bazzi, one of the authors of the study. He's also an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego. Bazzi started out talking about where these migrants landed.

SAMUEL BAZZI: They really did settle all over the United States. And while they did go to places in, say, the Northeast and kind of the economic heartland, at least in the early part of the 20th century, they went there in, at least in relative numbers, much less than they did to places out in the Western United States. One important fact that really distinguishes the Southern white diaspora from the Southern Black diaspora in many ways is that the white diaspora really could be found across the density divide. They settled in very rural places, in small towns, in big towns and big cities, whereas the Black diaspora was really concentrated in some of the biggest cities, the most dense places in urban America.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So that's fascinating. One of the things that I think is most striking and one of the things that's gotten a lot of attention is that you set forth the theory that this white Southern diaspora has had a really profound effect on the country's politics. Tell us why.

BAZZI: The first kind of important fact really stems from the point that I just highlighted, which is that they were really geographically diffuse. And so why is that important in the American electoral system? Well, our electoral college really overrepresents low-density places, low-population states relative to higher-population places and states.

MARTIN: Well, just to clarify for folks, so South Dakota has the same two senators as California. So there's that. What else?

BAZZI: That's right. So that's really key. And then in the other is the fact that these migrants, in many ways, really did bring new or at least intensified forms of religious conservatism to new parts of the country. They brought evangelical Protestantism from the American South and brought that with them to many places across America. And evangelical Christianity becomes much more politically engaged as a voting bloc and really mobilized in the 1970s. That's certainly one really important feature. And then the other is racial conservatism. And so if you look at survey data from the 1950s, 1960s, you can see that the Southern white diaspora looks much more similar, in terms of their racial attitudes, to the white populations living in the South as compared to those living in the rest of the country.

MARTIN: Do you think that the influence of this group was mainly that they settled in places that weren't as populous, so they kind of had an outsized impact? Or do you think they influenced their neighbors?

BAZZI: So I think we certainly find evidence of that outsized impact in these places that are less populous. But the other thing that we find is that, indeed, there does seem to be a very kind of localized intergroup contact. You may be going to the same church every Sunday. Your children may be going to the same schools. So I think there are kind of a lot of really localized neighborhood-based channels through which these migrants could be influencing their neighbors.

One thing that we do see quite clearly in the data is that - just to give you a concrete example, take a non-Southern white individual. If they are moving to a community where there happens to be a large Southern white migrant population, what we actually are able to see is that when you're exposed to that Southern white diaspora among your very local neighbors, you begin to give your children more religious names and tend to send a strong signal to others of your religiosity.

MARTIN: So let me be clear, again, that your report is based on statistical data. Can you tell us why you're so convinced that you can draw conclusions about the influence of this migration in the early 20th century on election results decades later?

BAZZI: The first is that we're, indeed, focused on that early wave of mass migration of whites out of the South in the early 1900s. And we're detecting a kind of impact on politics and a rightward shift in the communities to which they're migrating as early as the 1960s. And, of course, the 1960s were this kind of critical juncture in American politics as conservatives really realigned behind the Republican Party. And we saw the kind of mass exodus of Southern white voters from the Democratic Party. We also see that they begin to lose voters from the Southern white diaspora outside the South, in the communities in which that diaspora had begun to build deep roots in the middle of the 20th century. And then, of course, as partisan politics have really calcified in America, we've really seen the imprint of that diaspora persisting all the way through to the last, say, five or six presidential elections.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, where do you want to take this research next?

BAZZI: What we're doing is really digging deeply into the immediate post-Civil War era and basically looking at the migration of white individuals out of the former Confederate states and tracking those migrants who grew up living in an economy that was governed by slavery. They really played an important role in diffusing Confederate culture, Confederate nostalgia outside of the American South and helped grow and mobilize white supremacy in new forms in many places outside of the American South.

MARTIN: So why you might see a Confederate flag in places you don't expect.

BAZZI: Precisely.

MARTIN: Samuel Bazzi is the researcher and writer on the paper we've been talking about. It's titled "The Other Great Migration: Southern Whites And The New Right." Thanks so much for talking with us and sharing this really, really interesting research with us.

BAZZI: Thanks very much for having me, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "HIGHWAY RIDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.