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.

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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