Slavery → Racism → Inequality of Opportunity

Last week I visited the National Archives and viewed the original copy of the US Constitution with my family.  I was struck by how the original constitution only contained three explicit rights for individuals: they are freedoms from habeas corpus, bill of attainder, and ex post facto law.  Along with this is the implicit right to hold slaves that is assumed by the rights of slave-holders that are mentioned in three places: the 3/5ths compromise in Article One, the Fugitive Slave Clause requiring that escaped slaves be returned to their owners even if they cross state lines, and the guaranteed freedom to import slaves for at least 20 years.  So slave-holding was an assumed right along with only three other individual rights (or ‘freedoms’) in the original constitution.  The framers of the constitution could not agree on any more individual rights, but the Bill of Rights soon added ten amendments to the constitution to add many more.  But the enshrinement of slavery in the original constitution makes it unmedianist because by not counting slaves and Native Americans for democratic representation, the constitution was not using the proper median voter for making political decisions.  Furthermore, slavery creates huge inequalities that even hurt the median non-slave.

You can still see this legacy of slavery today.  Leonhardt at the NYT posted the following map showing red where there is the least opportunity for poor people to get richer.  The reddish, low-opportunity regions are concentrated in areas where African-Americans live due to the institution of slavery.  But the researchers also looked at what happens to the low-income people of different races and found that there is little difference in upward mobility for low-income people of all races.

race and mobility

The correlation between low-upward mobility and race indicates the persistent problems of racism in America, but it also shows that anti-racism may actually be counterproductive.  According to Pew data Kevin Drum found that “Obama won about 46 percent of the white vote outside the South and 27 percent of the white vote in the South.”  Meanwhile about 95% of African-American voters voted for Obama.  Unfortunately, I could not find county-specific map of racial partisanship like the map above, but I suspect that it would look similar.  Regions with a greater racial divide also have more problems with inequality of opportunity for all races.  A lot of the white vote in the South lives in its biggest states (Florida and Texas) which are not very southern anymore and probably the red counties in the above map have more racial partisanship.

I suspect that one reason there is worse inequality of opportunity in areas that had slavery is that these regions developed racism to justify slavery and racism divided the working class and allowed the elites to dominate them more easily.  Rich Cohen’s National Geographic cover story about the history of sugar says:

According to Trinidadian politician and historian Eric Williams, “Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Africans, in other words, were not enslaved because they were seen as inferior; they were seen as inferior to justify the enslavement required for the prosperity of the early sugar trade.

Whereas slavery in the US began slowly and with much ambivalence, the desire to morally justify it grew stronger as economic forces made slavery more valuable with the rise of the cotton industry.  Chris Hayes summarizes the history of how slavery warped the culture and economy of the South.

…In Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson notes that while in 1850 slave states had 42 percent of the population, they “possessed only 18 percent of the country’s manufacturing capacity, a decline from the 20 percent of 1840.” The same holds true for the South’s percentage of railroad miles, which was declining as the war approached. In 1852, James D.B. DeBow, a vociferous advocate of diversifying the Southern economy, lamented that “the North grows rich, and powerful, and great, whilst we, at best, are stationary.” (This underdevelopment would haunt the South well into the twentieth century: in 1930, only 38 percent of residents of the former Confederate states had electricity, compared with about 85 percent in states that had been free.)…

as slavery became more profitable to the planter class and ever more central to the economic health of the South, the ideas about slavery grew increasingly aggressive, expansionist and reactionary. “Very few people at the time of the Revolution and the Constitution publicly affirmed the desirability of slavery,” Foner observes. “They generally said, ‘We’re stuck with it; there’s nothing we can do.’”

Even in much of the South, slavery was at first seen as a necessary evil, a shameful feature of the American experience that would necessarily be phased out over time. Many slave-owning founders shared in this consensus. Slave owner and Virginian Patrick Henry referred to slavery in a private letter as an “abominable practice…a species of violence and tyranny” that was “repugnant to humanity.” His fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee called the slave trade an “iniquitous and disgraceful traffic” in 1759 while introducing a bill to try to end it. Thomas Jefferson, at times an ardent defender of slavery and the white supremacy that undergirded it, confessed in 1779 that “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

When Jefferson wrote those words, slavery had nowhere near the economic grip on the South that it would have during the cotton boom in the first half of the nineteenth century. Between 1805 and 1860, the price per slave grew from about $300 to $750, and the total number of slaves increased from 1 million to 4 million—which meant that the total value of slaves grew a whopping 900 percent in the half-century before the war…

It’s hard to overestimate the impact that cotton had on the South during the decades leading up to the war. No place on earth produced more cotton, and the world’s demand was insatiable. Economic historian Roger L. Ransom writes that “by the mid-1830s, cotton shipments accounted for more than half the value of all exports from the United States.” So lucrative was the crop that the planter class rushed into it, leaving behind everything else. As McPherson notes, per capita production of the South’s principal food crops actually declined during this period…

It is perhaps not surprising that under conditions of stupendous profit and accumulation, the rhetoric of the South’s politicians and planter class changed to a florid celebration of the peculiar institution. “By the 1830s, [John C.] Calhoun and all these guys, some of them go so far as to say, ‘It would be better for white workers if they were slaves,’” Foner tells me. “They have a whole literature on why slavery should be expanded.”…

“Our negroes,” according to Southern social theorist George Fitzhugh, “are not only better off as to physical comfort than free laborers, but their moral condition is better…. [They are] the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world.”

So the basic story looks like this: in the decades before the Civil War, the economic value of slavery explodes. It becomes the central economic institution and source of wealth for a region experiencing a boom that succeeded in raising per capita income and concentrating wealth ever more tightly in the hands of the Southern planter class. During this same period, the rhetoric of the planter class evolves from an ambivalence about slavery to a full-throated, aggressive celebration of it. As slavery becomes more valuable, the slave states find ever more fulsome ways of praising, justifying and celebrating it. Slavery increasingly moves from an economic institution to a cultural one; it becomes a matter of identity, of symbolism—indeed, in the hands of the most monstrously adept apologists, a thing of beauty.

Race-based affirmative action serves to maintain the racial divide which has been used to maintain the advantages for elites.  If the recent equality of opportunity research is correct and all races have similar opportunities, then class-based affirmative action would be fairer and it would help heal some of the divisions between races.  It would still give the biggest advantage to disadvantaged races because they are poorer on average, and the effect on African-American graduation rates would be small.

Posted in Discrimination, Labor

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