Colorism and African-American Wealth: Evidence from the Nineteenth-Century South

Howard Bodenhorn, Clemson University
Christopher S. Ruebeck, Lafayette College

Journal of Population Economics 2007, 20(3) 599-620
[Related NBER working paper, PDF] [dspace record]


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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