Research Projects

The Plunder of Black America
How the Racial Wealth Gap was Made and Why It’s Growing

Why does the typical African American family own one-tenth the wealth of the typical white one, a century and a half after Emancipation from slavery and half a century after the signal achievements of the Civil Rights Movement? Why is this “chasm” widening to such an extent that the wealth of the typical Black family will fall to near zero by mid-century?[1] Deepening racial economic inequality is among the most pressing social issues in the United States today, carrying tremendous policy implications. Yet it is widely misunderstood. Most Americans think that the Black-white racial wealth gap is nine-tenths and narrowing.[2] Recent scholarship on aspects of structural racism exploring issues like education, housing, finance, and incarceration have made strides against such perceptions while informing policy discussions, and scholarship on slavery and its legacies has guided discussions of reparations. Yet there have been few attempts to contextualize research across disciplines and over a chronology spanning centuries to examine the persistence of racial economic inequality over the long run and identify patterns of historical causation.

This project assembles the many parts of that process while humanizing it through a narrative featuring the lived experiences of African-descended American witnesses over twenty generations. The Plunder of Black America is a history of economic white supremacy told through Black subjects beginning with the institutionalization of slavery in seventeenth-century colonial Virginia and culminating in the growing racial wealth chasm of today’s United States. Its leading contention is that structural racism has grown in harmony rather than in tension with American institutions. Income and wealth rather than rights and liberties are a measure of this, and the book frames it as a dialectical historical process: each time African-descended Americans managed to amass wealth, economic practices shifted to strip significant portions of that wealth by legal means. African-descended Americans worked against interlocking disadvantages, breaking chains of violent expropriation, yet changing contexts such as shifts from agriculture to manufacturing, migrations from south to north (or west), or the Digital Revolution introduced new disadvantages as contexts changed. Each of ten chapters explores complexities pivoting on the theme that economic white supremacy has historically rested on the transfer of Black work product, income, or wealth into white hands. Instead of a fundamentally fair economic system tending to equilibrium and in which African Americans seized the promise of inclusion, the process of American development was premised on white racial advantage and Black disadvantage.

That wealth stripping is most evident in time and places of change, and the book focuses on key transitions such as the building of the Cotton South in the nineteenth century and the first Great Migration of African Americans out of the South in the twentieth. That historical process survived the political liberalization of the American Revolution, Emancipation and Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Era because the mechanisms for stripping Black wealth and disadvantaging African American earners were continually reinvented even as civil and political rights became more inclusive. The book therefore addresses a blind spot in the historical field, which is that structural disadvantages are less a function of political inclusion than of economic, environmental, and geographic contexts, and The Plunder of Black America concludes with an assessment of the growing importance of climate change as a component of structural racism or interlocking disadvantages for African-descended people. The relentless logic of the process of transferring Black wealth into white hands is what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the plunder of black life.”[3]

By the 175th anniversary of Emancipation in 2040, the typical Black American family will be poorer—much poorer—than in 1980. Plunder is still the plan as Black Americans face enduring “structural barriers” to upward mobility. The historical momentum of structural disadvantages play as variations on a theme of the last 350 years. The persistence in the wealth gap even suggests structural slavery will persist.

[1] Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2018), 249; Emanuel Nieves, et al., “The Road to Zero Wealth: How the Racial Wealth Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class,” Prosperity Now, September, 2017, https://prosperitynow.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/road_to_zero_wealth.pdf.

[2] Michael W. Kraus, et al., “The Misperception of Racial Economic Inequality,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 14.1 (2019): 1-23.

[3] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 111.

 


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.

African American novels emerged in the 1850s as a powerful counter-punch to a prevailing narrative of white masculinity and white femininity that emasculated Black men and set about erasing or warping Black femininity. African American authors rehearsed realism while taking back voices that white writers appropriated to aid the political cause of antislavery and proslavery, forming their aesthetic vision of American slavery and citizenship. White antislavery authors, most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Catherine Pierson, and Sarah J. Hale argued against slavery but also against African American equality, sentimentalizing racialism while legitimizing racial paternalism. A robust argument for colonization developed within their romantic racialist script. Audiences that wept and wrung their hands at slavery’s wrongs also bid farewell to blacks who might fare better in an imagined African homeland. In response, novelized ex-slave narratives, like those of Solomon Northup and Frederick Douglass, asserted masculine defiance and refused to mute slavery’s violence or concede anything to colonization schemes. The heroic fugitive became the pensive fugitive, denouncing slavery’s evils and insisting he was an American. But Uncle Tom mania washed over black autobiography, leaving the first African American novelists William Wells Brown, Martin R. Delany, Frank J. Webb, and Harriet E. Wilson, the challenge of responding to the chained sentiment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its imitators and building an imaginative argument that charted a way out of the chained sentiment of antislavery novelists and proslavery apologists.

White southern novelists responded to Uncle Tom mania by softening slavery’s features and hardening a proslavery argument’s core. Writers such as William Gilmore Simms, Charles Jacobs Peterson, Baynard Hall, and J. W. Page used Black voices to argue for slavery ever more stridently. Female proslavery novelists advanced that strategy most productively, and Caroline Gilman, Mary Henderson Eastman, Caroline Lee Hentz, G. M. Flanders, and V. G. Cowdin domesticated and sexualized that script, shrewdly indicting abolitionists as immoral hypocrites. Some like Hentz were northern natives and adherents of patriarchy, and she and Maria J. McIntosh developed proslavery paternalism into an elaborate national theme. In a deluge of artful and commercially successful pro- and antislavery novels, ex-slave autobiographers struggled to grab back their voices but reached the genre’s limits.

The stakes of slavery’s narrative were exceedingly high as the geopolitics of slavery roiled the republic during the 1850s, and during Reconstruction the memories and meanings of slavery tested the limits of how far a nation would go to address historical injustices and come to terms with the bitter legacy of slavery.


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