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Colourism and African–american wealth: evidence from the nineteenth-century south

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 US federal census exhibit sharp differences in wealth holdings between white, mulatto, and black households in the urban South. We document these differences, investigate relationships between wealth and recorded household characteristics, and decompose the wealth gaps to examine the returns to racial characteristics. The analysis reveals a distinct racial hierarchy. Black wealth was only 20% of white wealth, but mulattoes held nearly 50% of whites’ wealth. This advantage is consistent with colourism, the favouritism shown to those of lighter complexion.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In 1787, Virginia defined anyone with one or more black grandparents as mulatto, a definition that was reiterated in 1792 and 1819. In 1833, the Virginia legislature conceded that the one-fourth definition created a class of people that were neither black nor mulatto nor white. An act required such people with less than one-fourth black ancestry according to the local court's judgement in their petition for certificates of freedom that would establish their legal “whiteness”. It was not until 1866 that the term mulatto was eliminated from the civil code and replaced with the word coloured. In 1910, the statutory limit was changed so that anyone with 1/16 black ancestry was considered coloured. Finally, in 1930, the law was changed so that anyone with any ascertainable amount of black ancestry was coloured (Wadlington 1966, pp. 1196, 1201). Mississippi’s state constitution in 1911 classified individuals with one-fourth black ancestry as legally coloured (Anonymous 1911). By 1948, the constitution had been amended so that individuals with one-eighth black ancestry were coloured (Bynum 1998). Legal definitions in other southern states followed similar trajectories.

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Acknowledgement

Bodenhorn thanks the National Science Foundation (SES-0109165) and the Earhart Foundation for financial support. We thank Sandy Darity, Patrick Mason, Darrick Hamilton, Deborah Cobb-Clark, two anonymous referees, and seminar participants at Binghamton University, the Brookings Institution, George Mason University, Florida State University, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, and the NBER for many useful comments on earlier versions.

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Correspondence to Howard Bodenhorn.

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Responsible editor: Deborah Cobb-Clark

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Bodenhorn, H., Ruebeck, C.S. Colourism and African–american wealth: evidence from the nineteenth-century south. J Popul Econ 20, 599 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-006-0111-x

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Keywords

  • Colourism
  • African Americans
  • Wealth decomposition

JEL Classification

  • J7
  • N3