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Ohio State economist: Black politicians matter

Trevon Logan, chair of the Department of Economics, used historical data from the U.S. Reconstruction era and found black politicians expanded public education and agricultural employment opportunities for black people. Credit: Matt Dorsey | Engagement Editor

 

The skin color of political officials might have a significant impact on what policies are implemented in the area they serve, a study by an Ohio State economist suggests.

The study titled “Do Black Politicians Matter?” was authored by professor and chair of the Department of Economics, Trevon Logan. It was published on the National Bureau of Economic Research website in January.

Logan used historical data from the U.S. Reconstruction era to track the sudden influx of black politicians in the South in relation to regional policy changes in that area. Specifically, he found black politicians implemented higher county taxes than white leaders did, and expanded public education as well as agricultural employment opportunities for black people.

The Reconstruction era is anomalous in U.S. history, Logan said, and provided an opportunity to analyze the effect of a politician’s race in a way no other era could.

As an example of how other eras do not lend themselves to such a study, Logan mentioned the recent change in race of Columbus’ mayor, from Michael Coleman, who is black, to Andrew Ginther, who is white.

“You might think about a situation like that, where you compare Mayor Coleman to Mayor Ginther and think about policies that they enacted that might give you some sort of clues to the sort of role that race might have had an effect,” he said. “But if you look over the last 60 or 70 years, you have very few of those cases where you see that sort of transition of leadership by race. And so we can’t really be precise in our estimates there.”

By contrast, the Reconstruction era offers substantial numbers from which estimates can be made.

“From essentially no black political participation in the United States before the Civil War, the dramatic entry of blacks into American political life led to more than 1,300 blacks holding offices ranging from local school boards to Governor from 1866 to 1880 in the South,” the study states.

In addition to such significant increases in the number of black elected officials, Logan said black Reconstruction-era politicians were explicit in their policy goals.

“They were very articulate about stating their policy objectives and that’s actually really critical for this sort of policy analysis,” he said. “Going back through the narrative record, the historical record, and seeing these areas where they really had broad agreement among black politicians.”

Those areas were public education and the breaking up of large land holdings.

Ultimately, Logan found each additional black official increased the per capita county tax by 20 cents, a typical hourly wage at the time. Additionally, the funding of public schools was largely a success during this time, as measured by higher literacy rates.

“Exposure to a black politician increased black male literacy by 6 percent and it decreased the black-white literacy gap by more than 7 percent,” he said.

The goal of breaking up large land holdings was less successful, but still had a positive effect for black people at the time.

Black politicians imposed a land tax to encourage landowners to sell off the parts of their properties that were not being farmed. Though they did not end up selling much land, they did farm the previously unused portions, thus creating an increase in demand for farm labor, Logan said.

“And when you increase the demand for labor for people to work the land, it changes the deals that you’re able to offer people as a landowner,” he said. “So you have to give them a better deal to actually have them work the land, and that’s exactly what I find.”

Not only did Reconstruction offer a sudden influx of black political leadership to study, the so-called “redemption,” wherein Southern states revoked voting rights from black people in the mid-1870s, gives a cutoff point to further clarify the effect of black politicians.

“One of the things that you see in the paper is the tax effects, which we see have huge education effects, right? They go completely away when the black politicians are out of office,” Logan said. “They completely reverse themselves.”

While the idea of implementing higher taxes might sound undesirable to modern Americans, it wasn’t always that way, Logan said.

“There was a strong belief earlier in American politics, and even up until the middle of the 20th century certainly, that we were investing in public goods and that there were a lot of public goods that actually had really positive externalities and did great things for us and for our communities,” he said, adding the pushback against such public investment “has become much more nationalized over time.”

Logan calculated the policy effects in Reconstruction-era Southern counties by mathematically controlling for a plethora of variables, including access to rail lines, access to navigable water, urbanization, and a measure of segregation he created along with John Parman, an associate professor of economics at the College of William and Mary.

“I’m controlling for all that stuff, and I’m seeing that there’s still this residual effect that is due to black politicians,” he said.

Logan said he hopes the findings lead other researchers to examine an era he believes has been understudied.

“I would love to see the effect of these black politicians explored on, for example, local economic growth, other sorts of public goods that they could have potentially invested in, and political activity that they could have taken part in,” he said. “I also want to see if it has long-standing effects on voting outcomes today.”

Ultimately, he said, those questions about modern society are often the driving force in historical research.

“History really isn’t just about names and dates,” Logan said. “It actually can be about social science and be about things that are very, very contemporary today, that we don’t study the past just to study the past. Usually, we are sort of spurred by a question that’s going on now in our contemporary world.”

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