Pace of Social Change in America and Baltimore

The unrest in Baltimore represents the latest episode in the surfacing of simmering racial tensions in the United States. It was with that frame in mind that I was struck by a recent report published by Bloomberg on the pace of social change in America for six major social issues: interracial marriage, prohibition, women’s suffrage, abortion, same-sex marriage, and recreational marijuana. The authors’ description of the resulting plots of state action across time could have come from any standard study of policy diffusion: a few early movers followed by a rush of subsequent state action and a federal response. It looks like the typical “laboratories of democracy” scenario. There is a a lot more communicated in those plots, however, than a simple display of how punctuations occur in our normal policy equilibrium (Baumgartner and Jones 2009). On the contrary, I think the most interesting component of this report is the thing that is not like the others.

While most of the issues reflect r-shaped patterns of state events (in this case repeals) over time which denote rapid action (Boushey 2010; 2012), interracial marriage is notably different. In the cases of women’s suffrage, abortion, and gay marriage, the states rapidly act shortly before federal legislative or judicial action. Prohibition also exhibits different behavior, but I think this reflects the ebbing and flowing of the temperance movement and its connections to the Progressive and women’s suffrage movements. Of all of these event curves, interracial marriage stands out as particularly different, with a long, slow, trajectory. Americans apparently can rapidly change their minds when it comes to many social issues, but perhaps not for racially-charged social issues. I think this chart speaks volumes about the lasting racial tensions in our country. Policies are in some sense the tangible, practical, extension of the values and priorities of the majority. This can be seen in the recent debates about gay marriage. The Supreme Court is presently considering whether it should move ahead of some states in requiring recognition of same-sex marriages in light of shifting majority opinion (see especially Justice Kennedy’s comments from yesterday’s session). Therefore, the difference between social change in the case of interracial marriage and the other issues presented speaks to the “stickiness” of the values of the majority.

There is a potential alternative explanation for the difference between gay marriage and interracial marriage – perhaps we are just more enlightened now. Or perhaps our access to 24 hour sources of news and opinion help us change our opinions faster. Maybe, but that seems unlikely. Racial cleavages have been a challenge for America since its founding. Instead, I think that the Bloomberg report demonstrates how policy behavior by the states reflects broader social cleavages in society. We may be able to change our opinion rapidly, but racially-charged social issues appear to be a lot more “sticky” than other issues. Perhaps sustained attention to events like those in Ferguson and Baltimore will result in a punctuation and policy action, but it appears that, for racially-charges social issues, the equilibrium is substantially more difficult to puncture.



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