There’s a new paper from Social Science and Medicine making the rounds with the provocative title “Black lives matter: Differential mortality and the racial composition of the U.S. electorate, 1970–2004.” The Monkey Cage has a write-up with a blunt (clickbait-y?) title that emphasizes the paper’s main question, Blacks die sooner than whites. How many votes has this cost Democrats? Something about this framing bothered me.
In the paper, Rodriguez et al* first document the persistent black/white mortality differential in the United States. One of the more depressing facts they report is how this differential has basically remained constant since 1960. It’s a nice data point to highlight how gains in civil rights are dramatically insufficient to secure real material progress when dominant actors have other tools at their disposal to maintain and even increase segregation and inequality.
From there, Rodriguez et al go on to ask their central question:
We evaluate a counterfactual: What would have been the effect on the 2004 general election if blacks had survived at the same rates as whites between the years 1970 and 2004?
The results show that the increase in the black electorate would not have been quite enough to swing the election to Kerry from Bush, but that “between 1970 and 2004 the outcomes of 7 close senate elections, and of 11 close gubernatorial elections would have been reversed from Republican to Democratic victors with the addition of black hypothetical survivors.”
On some level, all of this is sensible enough. But on another level, it’s deeply weird. The analysis requires the assumption that black and white votes remain distributed the same across Republican and Democratic candidates even as we imagine a massive shift in one of the fundamental features of the contemporary American political system: systemic racism.
Put differently, what would have had to be different in order for black/white mortality differentials to disappear? I can’t really imagine a world in which our political system is what it is (or anything very similar), and in which black/white mortality differentials were reduced to zero. Equalizing mortality would almost necessarily require reducing wealth and income differentials, residential segregation, occupational segregation, racialized mass incarceration, and all of the other sorts of systemic inequalities that produced and sustained that differential. It would require an America that was almost unrecognizable in terms of race relations, but somehow otherwise the same in terms of political parties and partisan affiliations.
Is there a better way to make and report on estimates of the “troubling feedback effect whereby premature deaths among blacks affect the balance of political power among blacks and whites in the United States” (as Robinson puts it at The Monkey Cage), one that recognizes the centrality of racial inequality to the contemporary political system?
* The authors have an interesting mix of affiliations across economics, public health, and geography. Several of them are affiliate with the University of Michigan, but we haven’t crossed paths.