Colourism and African–american wealth: evidence from the nineteenth-century south



Black is not always black. Subtle distinctions in skin tone translate into significant differences in outcomes. Data on more than 15,000 households interviewed during the 1860 US federal census exhibit sharp differences in wealth holdings between white, mulatto, and black households in the urban South. We document these differences, investigate relationships between wealth and recorded household characteristics, and decompose the wealth gaps to examine the returns to racial characteristics. The analysis reveals a distinct racial hierarchy. Black wealth was only 20% of white wealth, but mulattoes held nearly 50% of whites’ wealth. This advantage is consistent with colourism, the favouritism shown to those of lighter complexion.


Colourism African Americans Wealth decomposition 

JEL Classification

J7 N3 



Bodenhorn thanks the National Science Foundation (SES-0109165) and the Earhart Foundation for financial support. We thank Sandy Darity, Patrick Mason, Darrick Hamilton, Deborah Cobb-Clark, two anonymous referees, and seminar participants at Binghamton University, the Brookings Institution, George Mason University, Florida State University, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, and the NBER for many useful comments on earlier versions.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsLafayette CollegeEastonUSA
  2. 2.NBERCambridgeUSA

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