Black Empowerment and Whites’ Mobilization: The Effects of the Voting Rights Act
The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) dismantled the institutional barriers that had suppressed political participation of African Americans in the U.S. South since the end of Reconstruction. How did the VRA affect whites’ voting behavior in the racially conservative South? In this paper, we study this question using a novel dataset on county-level voter registration rates by race. Using a triple-difference design that exploits variation induced by a special provision of the VRA (“coverage”), we find that covered counties with higher shares of African Americans experienced a larger increase in Black and white registration rates between 1960 and 1980. The surge in white registration rates was concentrated in counties where Black empowerment represented a political threat to the white majority, was not driven by the mechanical re-enfranchisement of illiterate whites, and was accompanied by a higher frequency of disparaging terms against African Americans in local newspapers. These findings suggest that, while the VRA promoted Black political participation, it also induced whites to mobilize in order to preserve their power. Additional analysis shows that the VRA had long-lasting negative effects on whites' racial attitudes that are still evident today.