This election stirred age-old animosities
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An election slogan on a burning century-old black church. Racist graffiti and costumes displayed in public places. Racist and anti-Semitic slurs spewed at political rallies and other gatherings. A baseball bat carried at a polling place to intimidate voters. Questions raised about whether certain ethnic and religious minority groups are persons. Extreme, hateful views and speech increasingly repeated and normalized in public discourse.

This could describe the United States in 1876 or 2016.

This prolonged election and post-election cycle has been fraught with incitement to violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups, recorded 701 incidents of hateful harassment between November 9th and 16th. 

As a macroeconomist with a sense of economic history, I have witnessed first-hand and through my research the perils of hate-related election violence. As a newly-minted PhD, I led the Harvard team that helped negotiate Rwanda’s first post-genocide IMF program. 

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For much of my career, I have conducted research on the effect of poor property rights protection, including the lack of personal security, on economic activity. Recently, this work has focused on the effect of violence on economic activity using data from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period when election related violence was commonplace in the U.S. 

Of the 15 major race-related disturbances recorded between 1874 and 1906, 10 were election-related, largely targeting African Americans and moderate white voters and elected officials. 

In addition to the human tragedy that ensued (deaths and destruction of property were typical), these and similar acts of hate-related violence had real economic consequences. Using patent data for the period 1880 to 1940, I show that this erosion of personal security and the rule of law had a negative effect on all races, although it disproportionately affected African Americans (particularly lynchings). 

Extrapolated to the population of all inventors, such violence would have both reduced inventive activity and made it more volatile, which would have depressed business investment and economic growth. Hate-related violence can ripple through societies and economies for decades, generations, and centuries.

Like the residents of Rwanda and the American South, we, as residents of the United States, have to live here and with each other. We cannot sit by passively as these acts of violence and intimidation mount. Every effort should be made to prevent violence before it erupts. There is a role for all of us in society.

Politicians, their parties, and their supporters must start immediately moderating their incendiary rhetoric and actions. They will need to be aggressive in denouncing racial- and election-related violence, deactivating their supporters in support of a peaceful democratic transition, a functioning government, and robust democratic institutions.

Elected officials should recall that nearly a century after the first federal anti-lynching bills were introduced, the Senate apologized in 2005 for not having acted against such hate-related violence. The Tulsa race riot (1921) commission found failure at each level of government in its 2001 report.

Firms and entire cities, if not states when considering the four major race riots in South Carolina in 1876, were shut down following race-related election violence. Business leaders and economic policymakers should proactively use the levers they control to minimize heightened racial and post-election tensions.

They might redouble their efforts through funding or their foundations to promote dialogue, cooperation, and goodwill in communities in the short run, as well as addressing structural economic, political, and social issues that underlie these expressions of race-related violence.

Colleges and universities should proactively and continue to moderate campus- and community-wide discussions and plan to provide all students, faculty, and staff outlets for minimizing the effects of heightened societal tension. 

As a young professor at Duke University, my uncle played an important role in negotiating potential violence following the assassination of his classmate Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, as did many other professors and administrators on numerous campuses across the country. Senior campus leaders among students, faculty, and staff have assumed and will need to actively assume this role in 2016.

Religious and spiritual leaders and leaders of civil-society groups should continue to step forward to make the moral argument for a nonviolent democratic transition and defense of democratic institutions before their congregations, in their communities, and among their donors.

Traditional and social media should continue recording the racist, vitriolic language and deeds without sensationalizing them and continue to reject the attempt at normalization of extreme racist views in the political mainstream. 

Media outlets producing and disseminating fake news and creating highly segregated “bubble” communities online should critically review these practices and cease the most egregious practices. Individuals should support such efforts by religious and nonprofit organizations with their checkbooks.

The increase in dangerous practices this campaign has reintroduced into American political life could have broad implications that will need to be addressed for quite some time to come. Many economists and other social scientists are studying and have studied the costs of conflict. 

Given this, policymakers and other leaders can avoid the repetition of history. 

It was Churchill who both reflected and accurately predicted in 1935, “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.”

Minimizing the damage now could raise the probability of hope at the bottom of this Pandora’s box of evils that has been (re)opened in our country.

Lisa Cook, Ph.D. is associate professor, Economics and International Relations, at Michigan State University, and past president, National Economic Association.


 

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