Slavery and its Economic Implications on America Today

In the following blog post, I will attempt to show that there are noticeable implications, or “links” between slavery and today’s economic inequality in America. During today’s discussion, Justin’s drafted essay alluded to both Tocqueville’s and Douglass’ shared revelation that economic inequality inherently drives social (racial) inequality.  In a cross comparison between Northern and Southern states, we learn that producing more slaves leads to more production. However, due to noticeable differences in resources, slaves were far more desirable and useful in the South than in the North. As Douglass witnessed, he was quite a valuable worker to the various Southern plantation owners while merely a “helping hand” to his owners in the North (New Bedford). “But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting to me was the condition of the colored people…I found many…living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average slaveholders in Maryland” (p. 427, Douglass). Given this background, we can conclude that economic inequality, specifically in regards to the key economic differences between the North and the South, may in fact facilitate social (racial) inequality. However, I would like to show that the reverse holds true today – that because of slavery (racial inequality) in the 18th and 19th centuries, there exists noticeable economic inequality.

Here is a map of what social/racial inequality looked like in 1846 United States:

Here is a map of the percentage of people in poverty by state today:

Here is a map of the poverty scale throughout the United States today:

Here is a map of the concentration of slaves throughout the United States in 1850:

As you can see, there is a noticeable correlation between all four maps. The states with the highest percentage of people in poverty today also maintained very high levels of slavery. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, the top five slave-owning states included: 1. Virginia, 2. Georgia, 3. Mississippi, 4. Alabama, 5. South Carolina. Meanwhile, today’s poorest states are: 1. Mississippi, 2. Louisiana, 3. New Mexico, 4. Alabama, 5. Texas (Note New Mexico did not become a state until 1912).

While we simply cannot conclude that just because high levels of slavery, and thus social (racial) inequality existed in these states, it is why they are extremely poor today. However, we can further evaluate this observation by testing the percentages of poverty within these former top slave holding states by race. This may give us a fair enough indication that a particular race has been continually disadvantaged from the time of slavery throughout today.

Data provided by: StateHealthFacts.Org

1. Virginia: 15% live in poverty; of this 15%, 11% are White while 26% are Black.

2. Georgia: 21% live in poverty; of this 21%, 13% are White while 34% are Black.

3. Mississippi: 28% live in poverty; of this 28%, 17% are White while 44% are Black.

4. Alabama: 22% live in poverty; of this 22%, 16% are White while 36% are Black.

5. South Carolina: 20% live in poverty; of this 20%, 13% are White while 35% are Black.

Conclusions: It is safe to say that these numbers are staggering! On average, African-Americans are 19.60% more likely to live in poverty than Caucasians within these five states. In addition to slavery, African-Americans also faced roughly 100 years of social and legal inequality. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in which all major forms of discrimination were outlawed. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s provided a catalyst for bridging the gap in social inequality. As Tocqueville predicted, “to give a man his freedom, and to leave him in wretchedness and ignominy, is nothing less than to prepare a future chief for a revolt of the slaves” (p. 440, Tocqueville). In other words, African-Americans have only fully existed within the “Shklarian” ideal society  for 47 years. According to Shklar, “two of [citizenship’s] most elementary and essential components: voting and earning, as they have emerged out of the stress of inherited inequalities…in a society committed to political equality and to the principle of inclusion” (p. 101, Shklar).

While African-Americans have technically been able to both vote and early freely since 1870’s 15th Amendment, they have not been able to fully experience all of society’s benefits without given limitations (i.e. Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, segregation, the KKK, etc.). This is noticeably exemplified by the aforementioned data and conclusions. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is certainly a connection drawn between the former practice of slavery/racial inequality and today’s poverty/economic disparity.

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2 Responses to Slavery and its Economic Implications on America Today

  1. Courtney M says:

    Thank you for such an intriguing comparison! I have never thought about this conclusion that you have drawn, but I think you’re spot on and have accurately made these connections. I think it’s important to also note, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination against African Americans STILL persists today in these southern states. Although I am embarrassed to admit this, I know discrimination is still evident because my relatives in Florida are extremely racist. It’s appalling to hear the things they say and to hear what goes on where they live, but there are unfortunately white people out there that still wish to deny African Americans equal rights. I can’t help but to believe that even though the law is on their side now, the fact that some white people in society still don’t accept them as legal citizens most likely affects their opportunities and experiences in life.

  2. krisskrosswillmakeyou says:

    A very interesting blog post! While certainly there is some evidence to support the correlation between slavery now and the economic conditions of black people in these states, I do not believe that slavery itself was a reason for the conditions. While there is a great deal of disparity between the top slave holding states in terms of poverty between blacks and whites, the disparity seems to exist in every state. For example, Michigan’s poverty rates is 19 % with 13% white and 44% black. This is higher than Virginia and the disparity is higher than any of the 5 states mentioned, and yet Michigan was a Northern state without slaves. In fact, every state has considerably higher rate of poverty for blacks rather than whites. This shows that slavery itself isn’t truly why the difference exists.
    Another explanation as to why states with slavery are poorer is simple geography. Tocqueville talks more about geography in the sense of creating democracy but the fields that the slaves worked in existed for a reason. The South was much more agriculture friendly and rural and still is today. However, the agriculture business has drastically lost profitability whereas other states that focused more on cities and business creation have become more successful in the modern age of technology.

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