Study: Slavery's effects lasted just 2 generations

by Lance Kramer | 11/6/02 6:00am

Economic disparities between the descendants of former slaves and free blacks largely disappeared within just two generations following emancipation, according to a study by Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote that may lend ammunition to opponents of slavery reparations.

"There's nothing positive you can say about slavery," Sacerdote said. "But what the study shows is how little slavery actually has to do with today's problems. It seems rather unlikely that slavery itself caused a lot of the racism problems present in the U.S. today."

While the study does not set out to directly address the national debate on the topic, Sacerdote noted that his finding could be used to argue against slavery reparations.

Other economists and those involved in the reparations debate had varied reactions to the study.

Conservative thinker David Horowitz -- who made headlines over a year ago when he ran an advertisement in college newspapers nationwide citing reasons discounting the idea of slave reparations -- said the study's findings support his viewpoint.

"The study is a very strong argument against affirmative action and all these artificial programs set out by the government to rig the system," Horowitz said. "Even under the circumstances of extreme racism, it's obvious that slaves can make these advances in a short space and that once you remove the artificial barriers, the problem will solve itself."

However, supporters of reparations -- like Dorothy Benton Lewis, national co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America -- argued that the study's central question was irrelevant.

"The issue here isn't whether blacks could 'catch-up,'" Lewis said. "What [Sacerdote] is comparing here is victim to victim. Both of these groups were victims of white supremacy and that thanks to the attidudes of racist people, both groups have experienced the same outcome."

"If that's the kind of bogus research Dartmouth produces, I'm ashamed -- Dartmouth should be ashamed," Lewis continued.

Many studies to date have examined the differentials between blacks and whites. But Sacerdote's study, entitled "Slavery and the Intergenerational Transmission of Human Capital," is the first of its kind to specifically measure the status of the children and grandchildren of former slaves as compared to the descendants of free blacks.

"To date there's been no real empirical study of whether families were able to recover from the effects of slavery," Dartmouth economics professor Eric Edmonds said. "Bruce is really blazing the way in an important area. Prior to his study, this particular area has been ignored."

"It is an impressive piece of research," said Gavin Wright, an economics professor at Stanford University. "I would not have thought it possible to compare the descendants of free-born blacks, but Sacerdote shows that indeed it is. And the results are extremely interesting."

Sacerdote compared data on the children and grandchildren of free blacks and former slaves from the 1880 and 1920 U.S. censuses, concentrating on the outcome measures of literacy, school attendance, whether a child lives in a female-headed household and two measures of adult occupation.

Wright said that while each of the measures has its respective limitations, they nonetheless apply to the question at hand.

For example, the study found that the children of former slaves were less likely to be enrolled in school than the children of blacks born free. This gap disappeared, however, when examining the grandchildren of free blacks and former slaves.

"I was surprised at how quickly you get convergence between the two groups," Sacerdote said. "Today's biggest topic for domestic policy is black-white differentials, and the simplest explanation is that slavery was the direct cause."

Sacerdote noted, however, that emancipation itself did little to reduce economic disparities between blacks and whites. He said the results of his study indicate that other social factors must account for current social inequities between African-Americans and whites.

"It's certainly reasonable to think that past discrimination in the pre-civil rights era caused disadvantages that have persisted for a long time and that are still observable today," Sacerdote said. "But no one actually agrees on one specific factor to blame for these problems. There's something out there -- we just don't know what it is exactly."

According to the study, convergence between the two groups occurred substantially in every category except in the prevalence of female-headed households among the descendants of slaves. Sacerdote cited this as one possible way slavery could have had measurable and long-lasting effects on successive generations of black Americans.

Sacerdote and his colleagues emphasized that the point of his study was not to examine the legitimacy of affirmative action or slave reparations, though they accepted that the study will be used in many different ways since it has been released into public domain.

"A lot of the reparations debate isn't at all about the long-term consequences of slavery. Rather, people are trying to get paid the wages slaves were never paid," Professor Edmonds said. "Bruce's study has nothing at all to do with that aspect of the reparations debate. Rather, he is concerned about how individuals recovered from the experience of slavery and the distortions in investments, specialization, etc. that slavery implied."