Research Projects

Disinherited, Dispossessed, and Decapitalized: The Limits of Black Wealth in America, 1619-2019 

In 2016, African Americans held about one-tenth the wealth of white Americans, as part of a pattern of a persistent racial wealth gap. Racial disparities in education, housing, health, and opportunities for building wealth have persisted despite civil rights gains of the previous fifty years. And the gap has widened over the past decade.[1] That is not a mere matter of lingering housing or educational inequities. The racial wealth gap is structural, as is the yawning gap between wealthy and poor Americans regardless of race. And both have roots in slavery. Formative structures of the North American political economy were infused with racial barriers to income creation and intergenerational wealth transfer, and as those structures changed, so did the barriers.

Scholars have pointed to slavery as a cause of racial wealth disparities, but no work to date has charted how slavery worked in terms of cutting off African-descended people from the intergenerational transfer of wealth that supported upward mobility among white Americans. In that sense the 1660s were as important to the story as the 1960s. This book details how transformations in the political economy of North American slavery gave rise to the structures that made racial barriers protean yet permanent.[2]

It views that process in terms of colonial disinheritance, early national dispossession, and twentieth- and twenty-first century decapitalization of African-descended people, charting changing structures that created and sustained a racial wealth gap. The racial economics of slavery disinherited and dispossessed twelve generations of Americans before 1865. Yet the way that racial exploitation was encoded in the DNA or structural characteristics of the early American economy meant that liberating events like the American Revolution and Emancipation disrupted but did not eradicate structures impeding Black income potential, household wealth accumulation, and the transmission of advantages from one generation to the next. Disinheritance, dispossession, and decapitalization were the major themes of three eras of that history, each one characterized by racial disadvantages and white supremacy that evolved in an interlocking process.

The legacies of slavery’s disinheritances and dispossessions included the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from economic entitlements in the twentieth century that were part of structural changes guided by a policy shift to managed capitalism. In the last fifty years, civil rights gains coincided with economic growth stimulated by liberated capital. Yet instead of democratizing opportunity, remarketized capitalism ended what one pair of scholars calls the “Great Compression,” reversing what another scholar calls the “Great Exception,” which locked in gains for capital owners, predominantly white Americans, while locking out opportunities for those who start at a disadvantage, mainly Hispanic/Latinx Americans and African Americans.[3] Punitive policies that eroded social safety nets, diminished collective bargaining, and targeted Black men for prison stifled what might have been a narrower racial wealth gap, but those policies were part of a broader structural violence that supports persistent inequality.

[1]Urban Institute, “Nine Charts about Wealth Inequality in America (Updated),” http://apps.urban.org/features/wealth-inequality-charts/, accessed October 31, 2018; William Darity, D. Hamilton, P. Mason, G. Price, G., A, Dávila, M. Mora, and S. Stockly, “Stratification Economics,” in The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy, eds. Andrea Flynn, Dorian T. Warren, Felicia J. Wong, and Susan R. Holmberg, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 35-51; Thomas M. Shapiro, Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

[2] Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York: Routledge, 1995); Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[3] Claudia Goldin, and Robert A. Margo. “The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 107.1 (1992): 1-34; Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

 


The Slaves We Eat is book and exhibit project exploring a 350-year history of slavery and coerced labor in sugar, cotton, and shrimp focusing on the making of global supply chains, how slavery is hidden at their base, and how they reveal slavery’s continuities. By SlavesWeEatlinking the pedestrian acts of buying a bag of sugar, cotton blouse, or tray of shrimp to the chains that create value while forcing down labor costs, we can see how slavery survived emancipation.

Nearly three centuries ago a Philadelphia abolitionist condemned those who ate “the flesh and blood of slaves instead of Christ.” It was a potent contention linking slaves’ distant toil and the substance of what we consume.  This book takes that metaphor as a starting point to examine three and a half centuries of slavery through the supply chains of sugar, cotton, and shrimp. It argues that slavery survived its legal termination and that slave-made goods and services are present in much of what we consume.
            The Slaves We Eat is a human history of managers and forced laborers focusing on the developments linking consumers’ pedestrian acts of buying a bag of sugar, a cotton blouse, or a tray of shrimp to the violence that make those commodities affordable for so many. It links regimes of slave labor over time using supply chain management, historicizing a central focus of business studies today and pinpointing how slavery was baked into early modern supply chains and why those linkages persisted through eras of emancipation. The central historical claim is that the 25 million people enslaved today are legatees of a process responsible for 12 million captives embarked in the transatlantic slave trade and millions more forced toil in slave labor camps in the Americas and beyond. More here: www.theslavesweeat.com


Writing Slavery:  Race, Bondage, and Narrative in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, under contract) contends that literature, including novels, autobiographies, and other stories shaped a narrative of slavery that emerged before the American Civil War. Within that narrative were conflicting scripts. Pro-slavery plantation romancers contributed a portrait of happy slaves in an idylic setting. African-descended Americans disputed that paternalist account, writing vehement denunciations of slavery as a landscape of terror and violence. Anti-slavery novelists drew from both scripts, accepting some of the plantation romance’s racism while using its aesthetics to argue that slavery took unfair advantage of African-descended people. That narrative came to life again after the Civil War as Americans argued about what the war meant and whether black Americans deserved anything but freedom. Writing Slavery traces the strands of those narratives through time, from plantation romances of the 1820s to racial realism of the 1890s.