Free DP Download 11 June 2020 - Sugar plantations and the effect of historical slavery on the African-American family structure

Thursday, June 11, 2020

BITTER SUGAR: Slavery and the Black Family
Graziella Bertocchi, Arcangelo Dimico      
CEPR DP No. 14837 | June 2020

The extreme demographic and social conditions prevailing in sugar plantations have had persistent effects on the family formation patterns of African-Americans in the United States, with a substantial impact on the likelihood that households are headed by a single woman. These patterns can be linked to the diffusion in sugar plantations of ‘matrifocality’ (where mothers head families and fathers play a less important role), forced celibacy for slave men, early widowhood for slave women and fathers’ absence from the lives of small children. 

These are the central findings of a new CEPR study by Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico, which empirically assesses the effect of historical slavery on the African-American family structure. Among the findings: 

  • Unlike other slave owners, sugar planters did not consider slave children as potential assets over which they could claim property rights. They thought instead that they could maximise profits by continually skewing their labour force toward men: ‘sugar suitability’. Together with the disease environment associated with sugar planting, this attitude caused profound demographic and social consequences.
  • In 1850, among the slave population, sugar suitability is associated with an unbalanced sex ratio skewed toward men, a lower birth rate and a lower share of infants. 
  • Over the period 1880-1940, higher sugar suitability determines a higher likelihood of single women has heads of families. 
  • While the legacy of sugar planting fades in 1920 in connection with the Great Migration, being replaced by that of slavery, consistent with the experiences of migration and intermarriage.
  • Between 1880 and 1930, the results indicate an even stronger intergenerational legacy of sugar planting for migrants. 
  • Black incarceration, an often-invoked potential driver of the dysfunctions of today's black family, is a powerful mediator of the share of blacks in the population, contributing to the spread of the legacy of slavery in sugar plantations. This suggests that the demographic and social dysfunctions inherited from sugar plantations, and spread all over the country after the abolition of slavery, are channelled by black incarceration. 

While the focus of this study is on family structure, the authors predict that these results carry deep ramifications for the associated ‘tangle of pathology’, and in particular with the workings of the US welfare, education and healthcare systems.

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