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The Complexion Gap: The Economic Consequences of Color among Free African Americans in the Rural Antebellum South

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  • Howard Bodenhorn

Abstract

Historians of U.S. race relations typically portray southern whites as reluctant to recognize or act favorably upon complexion-based differences within the African American community. Historians contend that mixed-race African Americans (mulattoes) received few advantages as a result of their partly white heritage. This paper shows that a there was a distinct complexion gap in late antebellum America. Mulatto men were more likely than black men to own farms or operate them as tenants, whereas black men were more likely to find employment as farm laborers throughout their lives. Quantile regressions also reveal a complexion gap in wealth accumulation. Mulattoes acquired more property than blacks, particularly at the upper end of the wealth distribution. Thus, an analysis of data included in the 1860 census implies a complex social hierarchy based on subtle gradations in skin color. At the upper end of the wealth distribution, light-complected mulattoes demonstrated a greater propensity to socioeconomic advancement than dark-complected blacks.

Suggested Citation

  • 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.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8957
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 1999. "The Returns to Skill in the United States across the Twentieth Century," NBER Working Papers 7126, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    3. Bodenhorn, Howard, 1999. "A Troublesome Caste: Height and Nutrition of Antebellum Virginia's Rural Free Blacks," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 59(04), pages 972-996, December.
    4. Reid, Joseph Jr., 1976. "Antebellum southern rental contracts," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 13(1), pages 69-83, January.
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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. Howard Bodenhorn & Christopher Ruebeck, 2007. "Colourism and African–american wealth: evidence from the nineteenth-century south," Journal of Population Economics, Springer;European Society for Population Economics, vol. 20(3), pages 599-620, July.
    2. Canaday, Neil, 2008. "The accumulation of property by southern blacks and whites: Individual-level evidence from a South Carolina cotton county, 1910-1919," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 45(1), pages 51-75, January.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. Howard Bodenhorn, 2006. "Urban Poverty, School Attendance, and Adolescent Labor Force Attachment: Some Historical Evidence," NBER Working Papers 12043, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. 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.
    8. Mason, Patrick L., 2009. "Identity matters: inter- and intra-racial disparity and labor market outcomes," MPRA Paper 17496, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    9. Kwabena Gyimah-Brempong & Gregory N. Price, 2006. "Crime and Punishment: And Skin Hue Too?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 96(2), pages 246-250, May.

    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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