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

  • Howard Bodenhorn

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.

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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w8957.pdf
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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 8957.

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Date of creation: May 2002
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Publication status: published as Kauffman, Kyle D. (ed.) Advances in agricultural economic history. Volume 2. Amsterdam, New York and London: Elsevier Science, JAI, 2003.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8957
Note: DAE
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  1. Lawrence F. Katz, 1998. "Commentary : the distribution of income in industrialized countries," Proceedings - Economic Policy Symposium - Jackson Hole, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, pages 33-48.
  2. Conley, Timothy G. & Galenson, David W., 1998. "Nativity and Wealth in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Cities," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 58(02), pages 468-493, June.
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  4. Ignazio Visco, 1998. "Commentary : the distribution of income in industrialized countries," Proceedings - Economic Policy Symposium - Jackson Hole, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, pages 49-57.
  5. 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.
  6. Reid, Joseph Jr., 1976. "Antebellum southern rental contracts," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 13(1), pages 69-83, January.
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  8. Richard H. Steckel & Roderick Floud, 1997. "Health and Welfare during Industrialization," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number stec97-1, June.
  9. Roger Koenker & Kevin F. Hallock, 2001. "Quantile Regression," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 15(4), pages 143-156, Fall.
  10. John Komlos, 1992. "Toward an Anthropometric History of African-Americans: The Case of the Free Blacks in Antebellum Maryland," NBER Chapters, in: Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel, pages 297-329 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Claudia Goldin & Hugh Rockoff, 1992. "Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number gold92-1, June.
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