Monday, November 17, 2008

The Black Belt: How Soil Types Determined the 2008 Election in the Deep South

Edit: credit for the original insight on the cotton-electoral connection seems to belong to Allen Gathman, a biology professor at SE Missouri State University. The Pin-the-Tail blog referenced previously seems to have picked it up later and failed to attribute the source; the post below has been corrected accordingly.

This is not a political blog. However, this is a story I couldn't pass up: the story of how voting patterns in the 2008 election were essentially determined 85 million years ago, in the Cretaceous Period. It's also a story about how soil science relates to political science, by way of historical chance.

It's also a story best told with maps, beginning with this one:

This is the map showing county-level election results in the southeastern USA, courtesy of the New York Times website. Most of these are "red" states, but the county-level detail shows an interesting phenomenon: a crescent of blue that runs in an arc from the Mississippi River floodplain to central North Carolina. This had struck me as curious when I saw it after the election, but I regret that I didn't investigate it further until the story was explained over the weekend on the Strange Maps blog.

Allen Gathman, a biology professor in Missouri, had also seen the pattern and recognized it as a function of land use in the deep South. He posted the electoral map above alongside a map of cotton production in 1860: sure enough, the "blue" counties correlated with cotton production in the slavery era. Here's a mash-up of the two maps from Strange Maps contributor Mark Root-Willey:

Each dot in the overlay map represents 2,000 bales of cotton production in 1860. Recall from your American history class that cotton production, a high-value but labor-intensive industry, was one of the prime economic reasons why Southern states chose to maintain the institution of slavery instead of maintaining the Union.

Fascinating stuff, but these maps reminded me that I had seen a similar pattern before, in satellite maps like this one:

View Larger Map

There's that crescent again. A closer look reveals that the lighter-colored band in the satellite image consists mostly of agricultural fields. Here's a detail of Noxubee County, one of the blue counties in eastern Mississippi that's located in the middle of the crescent:

View Larger Map

It turns out that this crescent actually has a name: the "Black Belt," a name that refers both to the area's racial demographics and to the rich, loamy soils that were ideal for cotton crops.

Allen Tullos of Emory University has an excellent essay on the Black Belt that's available online from the Southern Spaces journal. His article observes that
Half of Alabama's enslaved population was concentrated within ten Black Belt counties where the exploitation of their labor made this one of the richest regions in the antebellum United States.
Tullos's essay also includes a quote from Booker T. Washington, who gave this assessment of the Black Belt in 1901:
"I have often been asked to define the term 'Black Belt.' So far as I can learn, the term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the colour of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturaly rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later, and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense - that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.
A hundred years later, the "black belt" still contains a high concentration of African Americans, who, as a demographic group, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Barack Obama.

To review so far: the blue counties can be explained by the black population, whose ancestors were brought there because of white supremacy, and black soil.

But how did the soil get there, and why is it in this unusual crescent-shaped band? In an essay on the area's ecology, Joe MacGown, Richard Brown, and JoVonn Hill of the Mississippi Entomological Museum write that "the entire region is underlain by Selma Chalk formed from Upper Cretaceous marine deposits. Depending on the exact consistency of the parent material, the chalk weathers into a variety of soil types which supports a mosaic of habitats ranging from prairie to forest." Here's their map of this geological formation - look familiar?

One last map to bring it full circle, from blue counties, to ancient blue seas. Below are two maps of North America in the late Cretaceous Period, made by Professor of Geology Ron Blakey at the University of Northern Arizona. The map on the left shows the South during the early Cretaceous, about 115 million years ago, and the map on the right shows the South during the Late Cretaceous, about 85 million years ago. These shallow, tropical seas, teeming with marine life, laid the deposits that would eventually become the rich "black belt" soils. Note how the crescent of cotton farms in 1860, and of Democratic-voting counties in 2008, also follows the crescent of these ancient shorelines:

For further reading:
Allen Tullos, "The Black Belt." From Southern Spaces, April 2004.

Joe MacGown, Richard Brown, and JoVonn Hill, "The Black Belt in Mississippi." From the Mississippi Entomological Museum.

Ron Blakey, "Paleogeography and Geologic Evolution of North America: Images that track the ancient landscapes of North America"


Anonymous said...

Unreal post. Thank you. Why I keep coming back to your blog even though I'm no longer in Portland.

Michael said...

Found you at Strange Maps...not that I'm any sort of expert, but I'm in the region (Louisiana/Baton Rouge)--as you travel into the politically red areas, it's also literally red, as river sediments give way to red clay. My guess is that the red dirt isn't nearly as good for farming.

Corey Templeton said...

Very interesting and insightful! Thanks for the research.

francbelge said...

Geology. History. Politics... Fascinating perspective! Thx.

Allen Gathman said...

Thanks very much, both for giving me credit and for all the additional information and insights you've provided. The Cretaceous shoreline really makes the story!

Anonymous said...

weather also played a role: african dust often reaches north america, bringing with it african seeds.

those familiar plants enabled slaves to survive, even thrive after the end of the trade.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that this is pretty darn cool. I never would have thought to look at things like this.

Anonymous said...

Cotton provides a sufficient explanation for the crescents in Alabama and along the Mississippi but I don't know that that it's the story behind the eastern line of Obama counties.

We're looking at the edge of an ancient sea, to be sure; we're looking at a break in elevation.

It's the fall line.

The line of Obama counties up through Georgia and the Carolinas doesn't correspond particularly closely with cotton production. It does, however, trace the the commercial centers and mill towns that sprang up along the fall line, and that flourished in the latter half of the 19th century.

Anonymous said...

This is Cultural Geography. Lots of geographers have known and written about this for years. This is nothing new. For further understanding, read work by Gerald Webster, political geographer, formerly at U of Alabama, now at Wyoming, and Jonathan Leib, Old Dominion University.
Again, this is nothing new.

Search under: cultural geography, political geography and Black Belt.

Bidisha said...

Fascinating. Did this blue voting crescent also occur in previous presidential election years?

Anonymous said...

love your blog good stuff

Anonymous said...

I wonder what would happen if data for tobacco production, another labor-intensive activity that was widespread in 1860 and depends on fertile soil, were added to the cotton-production overlay map. Would the resulting dots extend into the now-empty blue counties in the Carolinas and Virginia?

Anonymous said...

In response to Bidisha's question, yes, the blue county profile is there for presidential elections preceding the 2008 election. You can see that from Presidential Election Maps by County for each election from 2008 back to the original civil rights era of the 1960s. It's especially clear for 1999 through 2008.

Basically, the political story is that the rural south votes heavily Republican, except for black voters. And those voters are only present in large percentages in America's rural counties in a single place: the historic Black Belt of rich black soil where cotton was intensively cultivated.

Russell Renka
Professor of Political Science (and friend of Allen Gathman)
Southeast Missouri State University

Unknown said...

Very informative- I had my suspicions and you put them to rest!

T said...

Very interesting. I wonder what's going on at that border between Tennessee and Alabama, where there's a cluster of cotton production, but no blue counties.

Anonymous said...

That is some pretty strong environmental determinism you're preaching there.

Unknown said...

Big Media could never figure this out... and even if they could, they wouldn't report it. Great work.

Anonymous said...

The TN/AL line is likely a lower slave concentration area. The more concentrated slave holdings would point towards the classic latifunda perception of slavery. The TN/AL area would point to small holdings where the slave supplemented white labor, and post-war these more equal numbers would be more readily diluted.

Anonymous said...

Far more white people voted for Barack Obama than did black people. That is why he was elected. The voting-black-public makes-up a small portion of the electorate. So to say that: all black people voted for President Obama, undermines the fact that the U.S.A. voted Obama into power, not just blacks or even minorities for that matter. This region may be unique, but the big picture speaks for itself.

Anonymous said...

fascinating. and nice shout-out from npr.

Anonymous said...

Hokum! It assumes that all black people voted for Obama, which is not true. He was elected because a whole lot of white people wanted a good president.

C Neal said...

@Anonymous: Sure, lots of white people voted for Obama (you happen to be writing to one of them — and I live in Maine, the whitest state in the nation, which has cast its electoral votes for Obama in both of the last two elections).

But in the deep south, most people did NOT vote for Obama — except in this arc of counties. I don't really believe that that's a coincidence.

Steve D said...

I had a paper on this in 2003:

Dutch, Steven I., 2003; Geology & Election 2000, Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Seattle WA, Nov. 2, 2003