Thursday, January 17, 2008

Levitt and Fryer on the Second Klan: Hatred and Profits

So one of the things that I want to do on this visit to to talk about recent scholarship.

I thought I'd talk first about the engagingly titled "Hatred and Profits: Getting Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan" by Steven Levitt and Roland Fryer. You may have seen this adoring piece on it in 02138 or Levitt's entry about it over at that Freakonomics blog last September. The paper is here if you're coming from a domain with a NBER subscription. If not, you can purchase it from ssrn for $5. Hey, these guys are economists. You expect them to give stuff away?!

Levitt said of the paper at Freakonomics blog:
More effort went into this paper, I believe, than any other paper I have ever written. Roland and I started this project five years ago and I wouldn’t be surprised if 10,000 hours were invested in it since then.
Wow; that's a truck-load of time. What did they get for five years worth of their research assistants' and their time?

Their abstract reads:
The Ku Klux Klan reached its heyday in the mid-1920s, claiming millions of members. In this paper, we analyze the 1920s Klan, those who joined it, and the social and political impact that it had. We utilize a wide range of newly discovered data sources including information from Klan membership roles, applications, robe-order forms, an internal audit of the Klan by Ernst and Ernst, and a census that the Klan conducted after an internal scandal. Combining these sources with data from the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Censuses, we find that individuals who joined the Klan were better educated and more likely to hold professional jobs than the typical American. Surprisingly, we find few tangible social or political impacts of the Klan. There is little evidence that the Klan had an effect on black or foreign born residential mobility, or on lynching patterns. Historians have argued that the Klan was successful in getting candidates they favored elected. Statistical analysis, however, suggests that any direct impact of the Klan was likely to be small. Furthermore, those who were elected had little discernible effect on legislation passed. Rather than a terrorist organization, the 1920s Klan is best described as a social organization built through a wildly successful pyramid scheme fueled by an army of highly-incentivized sales agents selling hatred, religious intolerance, and fraternity in a time and place where there was tremendous demand.
I love great titles and I deeply respect people who take on tough topics and say controversial things. I wonder if they are a little zealous with this statement: "Rather than a terrorist organization, the 1920s Klan is best described as a social organization built through a wildly successful pyramid scheme fueled by an army of highly-incentivized sales agents selling hatred, religious intolerance, and fraternity in a time and place where there was tremendous demand."

"Best described as"? And "the Klan's true genius lay in its uncanny ability to raise revenue." Hmm, I prefer a more moderate statement: the 1920s Klan was about profits and terror. It's harder to make comparative statements--that the Klan was more about profits than terror. To make that convincing, we need to measure the terror more effectively than only looking at lynchings and the out-migration of African Americans and foreign born people from counties with Klan members. That is, lynchings aren't a good measure of the Klan's effect. (And I'm not sure that lynchings measure all murders. For instance, the murder of the murder of Father Coyle in Birmingham in 1921 is often attributed in part to the hostile climate towards Catholics that the Alabama Klan fostered. Yet, even that extreme episode of violence isn't typically counted as a lynching.) There was a lot of lesser, but still significant, violence. We also need to know more than changes (or lack of them) in votes for Republicans and we need to know more about the political impact than the failure to pass state-wide legislation.

To illustrate some of the problems with this, let's take Oklahoma in the 1920s. I do not attribute, as some do, the terrible 1921 Tulsa riot (through which even the most conservative estimates acknowledge that dozens of people died) to the Klan. My sense is that the riot predated a lot of the Klan's popularity in Oklahoma; however, the riot helped to foster the growth of the Klan. And even though there were no lynchings in Oklahoma after the riot (when the Klan was most powerful), there were a lot of beatings and mutilations; many people run out of their homes (popularly known as "negro drives"). The Oklahoma governor declared martial law in Oklahoma in 1923 as a way of wresting control of the state from the Klan, at the time when many people acknowledged that a number of local officials, from prosecutors to police officers, to judges (and sometimes jurors) were Klan members. The military tribunals set up under martial law collected hundreds of pages of testimony about the Klan's violence. Of course, such claims served some of the governor's political purposes as well. I think the most obvious effects of the Klan are likely to be found at the local level, below the places that Levitt and Fryer look.

One of Levitt and Fryer's findings is that lynchings are declining as Klan membership is growing (page 21). This warrants some extended discussion. I'd like to suggest one interpretation. It's entirely possible, indeed likely, that the Klan is growing in part because of a perceived need to maintain white supremacy. So at a time when white supremacy is declining (as evidenced by a decline in lynchings), that may be precisely the moment when people feel the need to join the Klan. There is some literature along these lines, which talks about the all sorts of status anxiety issues in the 1910s and 1920s.

Before we're in a position to say that the Klan was more about some silly men dressing up like laughable Halloween characters, we need to have a very good estimate of the violence that they supported. Levitt and Fryer looked primarily at Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Indiana, rather than southern and southwestern states. As the quantitative reconstruction of our past continues, I hope there will be more studies like Levitt and Fryer and I look forward to further investigations of the Klan's violence. Their paper inspires me to go back to reexamine Oklahoma elections in the 1910s and 1920s.

While I'm on the topic of the Klan, I highly recommend Lisa Cardyn's excellent book-length study of the first Klan, which appeared in the Michigan Law Review in 2002. Here's a link to an excerpt. And I've written about the Klan in Oklahoma in the 1920s. Oklahoma, I think, gives us a sense of how the Klan’s members worked in conjunction with local law enforcement to create a macabre landscape that subjected African Americans, white women, immigrants, and even white men to threats of violence.

Al Brophy