LYNCHINGS IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH: New evidence of their economic roots and impact on black-white inequality today

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25 Mar 2015

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Lynchings of African-Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had an economic pattern rooted in labour markets: when demand for workers fell due to low cotton prices, white workers sought to scare black competitors away through lynchings.

That is one of the central findings of new research by Cornelius Christian to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2015 annual conference. What’s more, the study finds, past lynchings predict higher black-white inequality today.

Lynchings of African Americans compose a horrific part of US history, one that still requires explanation as to both why they occurred and their long-term consequences for African-Americans.

The new study analyses data on county-level lynchings from 1882 to 1930, a period marked by the US South’s reliance on cotton exports, as white and black labourers competed for work on cotton plantations. Christian also gathered data on out-migration and state-level agricultural wages (county-level wages are not available), and controlled for black population in the analysis.

The research finds that shocks to world cotton prices predict lynchings of blacks; a standard deviation drop in the world cotton price led to a 0.09 to 0.16 standard deviation increase in lynchings in a cotton-growing county. Furthermore, lynchings predict greater black out-migration and higher agricultural wages.

These results suggest that lynchings were intended to drive black workers out of the cotton market, increasing wages and jobs for the whites who were left behind.

Turning to modern-day data, from the five-year American Community Survey for 2012, the study finds that past lynchings predict higher black-white family, household and worker income gaps, even after controlling for standard socioeconomic factors. A standard deviation increase in past lynchings leads to a 0.08 to 0.15 standard deviation increase in black-white income gaps.

Christian then demonstrates that these modern-day results are robust to other tests: among them, controlling for past slavery and geography, and conducting two ‘placebo’ tests.

For one placebo test, the study uses county-level California lynchings data from 1850 to 1935. Lynchings in California were not directed at African-Americans: only 6 of the 352 California lynch victims were black. California lynchings do not predict a higher black-white income gap in California.

Cornelius Christian comments:

‘My results indicate that violence, like lynchings, can be motivated by labour market concerns and their effects can persist, affecting current labour markets.

‘They further indicate that economic shocks can lead to racist violence. This affects the contemporary debate over reparations and affirmative action.’


Lynchings, Labour, and Cotton in the US South
Cornelius Christian, a DPhil candidate in Economics at the University of Oxford

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