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Colorism and African American Wealth: Evidence from the Nineteenth-Century South

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  • Howard Bodenhorn
  • Christopher S. Ruebeck

Abstract

Black is not always black. Subtle distinctions in skin tone translate into significant differences in outcomes. Data on more than 15,000 households interviewed during the 1860 federal census exhibit sharp differences in wealth holdings between white, mulatto, and black households in the urban South. We document these differences, investigate the relationships between wealth and the recorded household characteristics, and decompose the wealth gaps into treatment and characteristic effects. In addition to higher wealth holdings of white households as compared to free African-Americans in general, there are distinct differences between both the characteristics of and wealth of free mulatto and black households, whether male- or female-headed. While black-headed households' mean predicted log wealth was only 20% of white-headed households', mulatto-headed households' was nearly 50% that of whites'. The difference between light- and dark-complexion is highly significant in semi-log wealth regressions. In the decomposition of this wealth differential, treatment effects play a large role in explaining the wealth gap between all subpopulation pairs.

Suggested Citation

  • Howard Bodenhorn & Christopher S. Ruebeck, 2005. "Colorism and African American Wealth: Evidence from the Nineteenth-Century South," NBER Working Papers 11732, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:11732
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Francine D. Blau & John W. Graham, 1990. "Black-White Differences in Wealth and Asset Composition," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 105(2), pages 321-339.
    2. Oaxaca, Ronald, 1973. "Male-Female Wage Differentials in Urban Labor Markets," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 14(3), pages 693-709, October.
    3. Alan S. Blinder, 1973. "Wage Discrimination: Reduced Form and Structural Estimates," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 8(4), pages 436-455.
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    5. George J. Borjas, 1994. "The Economics of Immigration," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 32(4), pages 1667-1717, December.
    6. Howard Bodenhorn & Christopher S. Ruebeck, 2003. "The Economics of Identity and the Endogeneity of Race," NBER Working Papers 9962, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Becker, Gary S, 1974. "A Theory of Marriage: Part II," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 82(2), pages 11-26, Part II, .
    8. Cotton, Jeremiah, 1988. "On the Decomposition of Wage Differentials," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 70(2), pages 236-243, May.
    9. Arthur H. Goldsmith & Darrick Hamilton & William Darity, Jr, 2007. "From Dark to Light: Skin Color and Wages Among African-Americans," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 42(4).
    10. Howard Bodenhorn, 2002. "The Complexion Gap: The Economic Consequences of Color among Free African Americans in the Rural Antebellum South," NBER Working Papers 8957, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Mason, Patrick L., 2004. "Annual income, hourly wages, and identity Among Mexican Americans and other Latinos," MPRA Paper 11326, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    12. Glenn C. Loury, 1998. "Discrimination in the Post-Civil Rights Era: Beyond Market Interactions," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 12(2), pages 117-126, Spring.
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    Cited by:

    1. Maloney, Thomas N. & Carson, Scott Alan, 2008. "Living standards in Black and White: Evidence from the heights of Ohio Prison inmates, 1829-1913," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 6(2), pages 237-251, July.
    2. Roland G. Fryer Jr. & Lisa Kahn & Steven D. Levitt & Jörg L. Spenkuch, 2012. "The Plight of Mixed-Race Adolescents," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 94(3), pages 621-634, August.
    3. Howard Bodenhorn, 2006. "Colorism, Complexion Homogamy, and Household Wealth: Some Historical Evidence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 96(2), pages 256-260, May.
    4. Brian Duncan & Stephen J. Trejo, 2009. "Ancestry versus ethnicity: the complexity and selectivity of Mexican identification in the United States," Research in Labor Economics,in: Ethnicity and Labor Market Outcomes, volume 29, pages 31-66 Emerald Publishing Ltd.
    5. Howard Bodenhorn, 2011. "Manumission in nineteenth-century Virginia," Cliometrica, Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC), vol. 5(2), pages 145-164, June.
    6. Brian Duncan & Stephen J. Trejo, 2011. "Intermarriage and the Intergenerational Transmission of Ethnic Identity and Human Capital for Mexican Americans," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 29(2), pages 195-227.
    7. Howard Bodenhorn & Carolyn Moehling & Gregory N. Price, 2012. "Short Criminals: Stature and Crime in Early America," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 55(2), pages 393-419.
    8. Marcos Rangel, 2015. "Is Parental Love Colorblind? Human Capital Accumulation within Mixed Families," The Review of Black Political Economy, Springer;National Economic Association, vol. 42(1), pages 57-86, June.
    9. Green, Tiffany L. & Hamilton, Tod G., 2013. "Beyond black and white: Color and mortality in post-reconstruction era North Carolina," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(1), pages 148-159.
    10. Aliya Saperstein & Aaron Gullickson, 2013. "A “Mulatto Escape Hatch” in the United States? Examining Evidence of Racial and Social Mobility During the Jim Crow Era," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 50(5), pages 1921-1942, October.
    11. Loury, Linda Datcher, 2009. "Am I still too Black for you?: Schooling and secular change in skin tone effects," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 28(4), pages 428-433, August.
    12. Howard Bodenhorn, 2006. "Single Parenthood and Childhood Outcomes in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Urban South," NBER Working Papers 12056, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    13. Howard Bodenhorn, 2008. "Criminal Sentencing in Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania," NBER Working Papers 14283, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • N3 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy
    • J7 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor Discrimination

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