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CAGE hosts webinar on the Economic History of Race in the US

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CAGE hosts webinar on the Economic History of Race in the US

Webinar throws light on how the historical institution of American slavery has impacted on the economic and political lives of the black population in the United States.

The killing of George Floyd in the United States has amplified calls to eradicate racial inequality and injustice in both the US and the UK. On June 22 CAGE hosted a webinar on the Economic History of Race in the US in order to shed light on the historical, economic and cultural context of enduring racial disparities. Following the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, there began a phase of Reconstruction. It extended franchise to the black population, a policy that was to be reversed in many Southern states. Discussion on this issue is rare in the UK. The CAGE webinar brought together four academics from the United States. Their research throws light on how the historical institution of American slavery has impacted on the economic and political lives of the black population in the United States.

Warren Whatley from the University of Michigan presented on the economic origins of the African American family in the US. He considered the complex development of African American identity in the context of slavery. He hypothesised that the driving force behind the creation and evolution of African American culture under slavery was the drive to reduce the probability of sale as a way to improve the quality of human life. He argued that kinship relations created positive externalities for the shared community of slaves which also benefited slave owners by increasing the number of slaves they owned and discouraging slaves from running away.

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Trevon Logan from Ohio State University discussed the effect of black politicians during the Reconstruction period in the US (1865-77) on taxation and spending. He finds that counties with a black politician during Reconstruction had higher per capita taxes in 1880, but the effect disappeared by the end of the period. Counties with Black office holders also reduced the black and white literacy gap. They had no effect on land redistribution. He also considered the extent to which black politicians who raised taxes were targeted with violence.

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Jhacova Williams of Clemson University discussed how historical lynching has affected the contemporary voting behaviour of black people. She shows that after the Reconstruction Act of 1867, 1,000,000 black people were given the right to vote. Initially, voter turnout among black people was nearly 90%. Black men voted for both white and black politicians. However, Jhacova shows that in areas where lynching of black people was particularly rife, voting among black people dropped significantly. This drop in democratic participation continues to the modern day: low voter registration rates of African Americans can be traced back to historical lynching.

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William Collins of Vanderbilt University spoke on Race, Unions, and Wages following the the Great Migration, when significant numbers of black people moved from the South to Northern parts of the US. This coincided with the rise of unions in the US and there were tensions between black workers and the unions during the 1950s. Gaining entry to unionised jobs was difficult but valuable for black workers. He finds that, if black men had gained employment in unionised jobs at the same rate as similar white men, their 1950s earnings would have been significantly higher.

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Bishnupriya Gupta, Research Director of CAGE and chair of the webinar said ‘These talks have given us important insights into the historical context of the racial economic inequalities that still pervade our culture today. We were delighted to welcome such a fantastic panel working on such diverse areas of the economic history of race in the United States. The audience was one of the most international we have had. The number of views of the event (over 200) demonstrates a widespread interest in learning from the past in order to better understand issues of race. This is important if we are to eradicate not only racial violence and inequality but also unconscious bias.