Obama, Katrina, and the Persistence of Racial Inequality

Robert A. Margo

NBER Working Paper No. 21933
Issued in January 2016
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Labor Studies

This paper is my presidential address to the Economic History Association. In it, I review and extend the economic history of racial differences in per capita income from 1870 to the present. Specifically, I revise pre-World War Two benchmark estimates of Black/White income ratios originally prepared by Robert Higgs. The Higgs benchmarks suggest that the Black/White income ratio increased from 1870 to 1900, but the trend was flat from 1900 to 1940. Compared with the Higgs benchmarks, mine show less convergence before 1900 but more between 1900 and 1940. When my new benchmarks are combined with standard post-World War Two census data they suggest that the underlying pace of Black/White income convergence has been absolutely slow, with the notable exceptions of the 1940s and the period of the modern Civil Rights Movement. I explore the interpretation of these long-run features with a model of intergenerational transmission of racial inequality in which racial differences in causal factors that determine income are initially enormous after the Civil War and which erode slowly across generations.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21933

Published: Robert A. Margo, 2016. "Obama, Katrina, and the Persistence of Racial Inequality," The Journal of Economic History, vol 76(02), pages 301-341. citation courtesy of

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