Research Findings

The past is the past? How slavery still benefits white Americans


October 10, 2019

Arguments against racial reparations in the United States often lean on the assertions that slavery was “a long time ago,” that no one alive today suffered as a slave in the United States, and that no one alive today owned any slaves in the United States (at least not legally; we know human trafficking remains a major problem). The argument generally proceeds that therefore no one suffered from slavery and no one benefitted so no one deserves reparations.

“The past is the past,” they say.

Sociologists and other social scientists disagree. The past may be the past but it continues to have a measurable influence on contemporary social outcomes, and “legacy of slavery” research shows that chattel slavery is directly related to a wide variety of phenomena in the United States: violent crime rates, black election turnout, executions, educational inequality, economic inequality, school segregation. And internationally, researchers find that the slave trade significantly stunted the economic development of places in Africa where slaves were stolen and places where slavery was more widespread historically, with the exception of the United States.

However, my research takes a slightly different approach. Rather than continuing to ask the question “How have black people been disadvantaged by slavery?” I wanted to answer the question “How have white people been advantaged by slavery?”

This is the important “other side” of slavery in the US. Disadvantage does not happen in a vacuum. For black Americans to have been disadvantaged by slavery someone else must have benefitted. And in this country, that “someone” is white Americans.

On one level the answer to the question I posed is intuitive. Of course slave owners benefitted from free slave labor. Even digging a little deeper, of course the owners of textile plants and banks investing in slave services and other industries that directly relied on the products produced by slavery benefitted from free slave labor. But this intuitive understanding is not enough.

Instead, I wanted to explore how slavery increased the fortunes of white people in general, not just those with direct ties to slave ownership or particular industries. I sought to understand how slavery may have created conditions that allowed all white people to ultimately profit at the expense of the black population.

I attempted to answer this question by analyzing counties in slave states in the US. Although slavery was legal across the South and the Southern economy, indeed the American economy, relied heavily on the institution, the actual use of slave labor varied widely from county to county. In some places, there were very few or no slaves at all. In others, like Washington County, Mississippi where I grew up, slaves constituted upwards of 90 percent of the local population. I set out to use this cross-county variation in the use of slave labor to understand how slavery may have influenced contemporary white social outcomes.

To do this, I used Census data from 1860 to calculate the slave population for each county in slave states (Oklahoma is notably absent; although slavery was legal in Oklahoma, it was not yet a state in 1860 so the data available is limited). I paired this historical data with 2014 county data from the American Community Survey, which is conducted by the Census Bureau, and 2014 county data from the USDA Economic Research Service.

I then used regression analysis to test whether the size of the local slave population directly influenced the outcomes of the white population on six measures: the percentage of people who are uninsured, median income, unemployment rate, poverty rate, homeownership rate, and the percentage of people on food stamps.

Ultimately, I found that on five of the six measures I analyzed, a larger local slave population was associated with better white outcomes. That means a larger local slave population was correlated with lower percentages of uninsured white people, higher white median incomes, lower white poverty rates, higher white homeownership rates, and lower percentages of white people on food stamps. These correlations remained even when I accounted for eighteen other factors, including characteristics of the local economy, demographics, and geography.

Although it is notable that slavery is correlated with these outcomes at all, the more damning result is that slavery affects the outcomes more than any other factor I analyzed. So not only does slavery appear to continue to directly, and positively, influence contemporary white social outcomes, it seems to be one of the most powerful explanations of differences in white social outcomes across places.

Simply put: white populations in places where there were more slaves are better off today, and they are better off because of their slave history.

The notion that the past is the past and should be forgotten is one that we should, ironically, leave in the past. In addition to offering valuable lessons about our present and future, our past directly shapes our present in ways that we continue to uncover. Reducing inequality requires us to reckon with our past in sometimes uncomfortable ways and few things are as uncomfortable in this country as the legacy of chattel slavery.

Although racial reparations may seem politically untenable, research like this shows that white populations continue to be unjustly enriched by our slave past, and without interventions that target our slave history, inequality will cement itself as a permanent feature of our society.

Read more

Robert L. Reece. “Whitewashing Slavery: Legacy of Slavery and White Social Outcomes,” Social Problems 2019.

Image: US Coast Guard via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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