The Complexion Gap: The Economic Consequences of Color among Free African Americans in the Rural Antebellum South
Historians of U.S. race relations typically portray southern whites as reluctant to recognize or act favorably upon complexion-based differences within the African American community. Historians contend that mixed-race African Americans (mulattoes) received few advantages as a result of their partly white heritage. This paper shows that a there was a distinct complexion gap in late antebellum America. Mulatto men were more likely than black men to own farms or operate them as tenants, whereas black men were more likely to find employment as farm laborers throughout their lives. Quantile regressions also reveal a complexion gap in wealth accumulation. Mulattoes acquired more property than blacks, particularly at the upper end of the wealth distribution. Thus, an analysis of data included in the 1860 census implies a complex social hierarchy based on subtle gradations in skin color. At the upper end of the wealth distribution, light-complected mulattoes demonstrated a greater propensity to socioeconomic advancement than dark-complected blacks.