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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Gavin Wright, Sharing the Prize: the Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South

Welcome Gavin Wright (Stanford University), and Host Knut

Sharing the Prize: the Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South

Good afternoon, pups.

Today we have the privilege of holding a conversation with Professor Gavin Wright on his book on the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, Sharing the Prize. To many of us who came of age before Vietnam (BV), the Civil Rights Movement was a defining moment of moral and political consciousness. I participated in sit-ins in autumn 1960 and spring 1961; in 1963 Gavin was in North Carolina registering black voters. As a nation, the two great Civil Rights laws of 1964 and 1965 represent one of the few things we did right in the past half century, and in this autumn of our discontent, it’s good to remind ourselves that we still may be capable of doing the right thing. But what difference did the Revolution make to the people most directly affected by it? That is the topic of today’s book. What were the economic consequences of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965? How did desegregation of public accommodations, work place, public schools, and the restoration of southern black Americans’ right to vote affect their economic prospects?

Perhaps the most revealing (and surprising) measure of the Revolution’s success in improving economic conditions of southern blacks is that whereas between 1940 and 1965 four to five million of them left the South, since 1970 some two million have returned, better trained and more highly educated. People vote with their feet, and that vote renders a decisive verdict. But did those improved prospects come at the expense of diminished prospects for southern whites? The short answer is no. Wright shows that white businessmen and white workers clearly benefitted from the desegregation of public accommodations, workplaces, and schools. Desegregated businesses prospered; tests scores and graduation rates for whites and blacks alike rose in desegregated school districts, and white workers prospered even as blacks secured jobs previously denied them on the basis of race. The case for voting rights is more difficult statistically to demonstrate, but here, too, southern whites seem on the whole to have benefitted from the increase in public expenditures following extension of the suffrage to blacks. The economic benefit for white southerners raises the crucial question (at least for economists) why they did not initiate desegregation in their own self-interest? Why did it require boycotts, sit-ins, massive demonstrations and freedom rides, and the full force of the Department of Justice to impose what was commanded by simple economic logic?

Sharing the Prize contests three conventional accounts of that apparent irrationality. The first holds that Jim Crow laws passed at the beginning of the century forced businessmen to segregate when they would have preferred not to. The second by contrast maintains that segregation reflected employers’ and store-owners’ ‘taste’ for a white clientele and white workers, which they indulged at the cost of diminished profits. The third theory holds that segregation ended only after it became apparent to the southern business elite that it stood in the way of regional economic progress. None of these accounts stands up to close inspection of the historical record. By the 1950s, with minor exceptions the Jim Crow laws were non-binding, especially following Brown vs Board of Education: southern businessmen did not discriminate because they had to, but because they wanted to; they wanted to not because they were indulging a prejudice, but really believed segregation was good for business. The economic transformation of the South dates to the New Deal and World War II, but as late as 1960, there were few signs that Jim Crow was in serious danger. Indeed, segregation was defended by progressive businessmen on the grounds that it reduced ‘friction.’ It was a stable system to which blacks as well as whites had become adjusted. When Rosa Parks made refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, the response of the local black association was to urge the creation of a separate black section at the back of the bus. Indeed, the early sit-ins and protests had little direct effect on the situation, shops, toilet facilities, parks and other accommodations remained segregated, as did the schools. Yet by 1965 most indices reveal drastic change, and by 1970, Jim Crow was effectively dead.

The Civil Rights Revolution was a thus real revolution. Trends in proportions of desegregated facilities, work places, schools, of blacks voting and the black-white wage gap all show sharp breaks around 1964-65. Contrary to what is often claimed, however, Jim Crow was perfectly compatible with the South’s economic modernization. White Southerners were prepared to ‘modernize’ their economy; they just didn’t think the Blacks should have any part in it, and were only too happy to see them leave after mechanization of the cotton harvest made black field hands redundant. Perhaps the most troubling manifestation of the compatibility of modernization and racial segregation is the re-segregation of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district since the late 1990s. At the end of the 1980s, Charlotte boasted the most desegregated system in the South and possibly the nation; it was a model of what could be achieved where economic opportunity supported a coalition of reformers and businessmen intent of making the most of it. It failed largely because of their success. Pressure to end busing initially came from newcomers (many of them northerners) attracted to Charlotte by its economic prosperity. Class was probably more important than race, but the correlation was high enough for segregation by income to reintroduce segregation by race.

Racial segregation in the United States rested on the simple marker of skin colour. The insidious segregation that in our lifetime has come to permeate public and higher education, the penal system, the judicial system, and political influence rests on markers of income and wealth. It is not obvious how that growing class divide can be overcome. It is not that we do not know what to do: a more progressive tax on income and wealth would do most of the trick. What we do not know is how to construct politically effective coalitions of groups composed of persons with self-interest in reforming the fiscal system. The Civil Rights Revolution was a special and possibly unique historical moment in which the aims of idealists, business leaders, and politicians coalesced to undo a system that had stood the test of time. Wright’s book shows how that moment redirected private energies to create a better world for a large part of the American population.

Welcome to the Lake, Gavin. The water’s brisk, but clear.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

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