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Slaves' families overcame wealth disparities within two generations, study shows

Freedom erased some economic divisions, but hardly all, says Dartmouth economist

Dartmouth College

HANOVER, N.H. -- In a study that could create waves in the already controversial slavery reparations debate, Dartmouth College economist Bruce Sacerdote has found that the economic disparities slavery created between free blacks and those who were slaves largely dissipated within two generations after emancipation.

Using U.S. Census Data from 1880 and 1920, Sacerdote compared the economic achievement of former slaves, their children and grandchildren to that of free blacks, and their children and grandchildren. Among the measures of economic well-being that he analyzed were literacy, schooling and income.

"Within roughly two generations, the descendants of slaves caught up to the descendants of free black men and women" on most measures, said Sacerdote, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Dartmouth.

At the same time, however, the study also demonstrates that emancipation did little to diminish the economic disparity between blacks and whites. While previous research has shown that recent immigrants and other disadvantaged groups quickly climbed the economic ladder, wealth among blacks of all backgrounds continued to be significantly lower than that of their white counterparts.

This deviation from normal convergence patterns suggests that "there is something odd about black and white differences in this country," Sacerdote said.

"When there aren't obvious color barriers between people, there is quick convergence between different groups. The fact that incomes and other measures don't converge for blacks and whites could indicate the degree to which institutional and societal barriers still existed," he said.

Opponents of slavery reparations could find support for their arguments in Sacerdote's study.

"By the time you're talking about the great-great grandchildren, there is no difference in wealth between descendants of slaves and descendants of free blacks," he said. In that sense, he believes his research argues against the need for reparations.

Sacerdote's research draws upon an extensive body of work about social mobility within family groups over the course of time. While many studies have compared the achievement of blacks and whites, his is the first to examine the differences among subgroups of black Americans. He believes the methodology used for this paper could have other applications, such as measuring the long-term effectiveness of affirmative action programs.

"If we look at professions with strong affirmative action programs and compare them to those without them, we can see whether the programs result in improvements for the next generation or whether they just provide temporary increases in income for the immediate generation," Sacerdote explained.

The study "Slavery and the Intergenerational Transmission of Human Capital" can be viewed online at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~bsacerdo/.

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