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When I was younger, I would read world atlases. And sometimes I would come to an article, say an article on the country Colombia, and it would say that Colombia is a world leader in coffee production, then list off some other “cash crops”. Then it would go into the growing textiles sector, and mention that it has some problem with debt. Maybe it’s a leading producer of phosphates as well or something. And if you read all of this qualitative, subjective description, you would never realize that Colombia was poor. It’s not until you got to “per capita GDP” that you would discover that it was $3,000 per capita.

You could also have someone qualitatively describe a football game between Auburn and Alabama. And they could do highlights, and describe some of the big plays, and you wouldn’t know that Alabama completely steamrolled Auburn until you looked at the box score.

Or imagine if your son was “describing” qualitatively and subjectively how he was doing in his classes. As a parent you don’t care, you want to see the damn grades.

And so the effects of segregation on blacks. What does the data say? Because in school when segregation is taught, it’s the equivalent of describing a football game by just looking at the highlights and not the box score. It’s cat-lady storytime.

Well, there are a few big go-to topics that popped into my mind to try to quantify the effects of segregation on blacks: cops and courts, schools, income and lynching.

1. Incarceration rate

The incarceration rate for blacks relative to whites has increased at least since 1930, probably long before that. So in terms of blacks being targeted for being sent to prison, it looks like they were substantially less targeted compared to today.

Odds of a black individual going to prison relative to whites by year

Year Black multiple of white
1930 2.64
1940 3.62
1950 3.90
1960 4.09
1970 5.04
1980 5.01
1990 6.63

Odds of a black individual going to prison relative to non-hispanic whites by year

Year Black multiple of non-hispanic white
2000 7.32
2010 6.16

So if the legal systems were unfair during segregation, they appear to be even more unfair today. Or perhaps they weren’t unfair during segregation, are unfair today, or perhaps the laws are different today in a way that disparately impacts blacks more than they did in the past.

There are all sorts of things we can speculate, but it’s not immediately or obviously apparent, from the data, that the legal system was particularly keen on incarcerating blacks compared to today.

2. Prison sentences

For prison sentences, the numbers have been remarkably stable. When you look at length of prison terms for blacks compared to whites after the FIRST release from prison, it’s very close.

The first release data is important because none of these are repeat offenders. Repeat offenders get more time, and blacks are more likely to be repeat offenders.

That said, based on the data below, blacks serve roughly ~15% longer prison terms for their first term. It could be because the crimes blacks commit within each category are, on average, more severe. It could be racial bias on the part of judges.

Or it could be that blacks have worse courtroom behavior, as when IQ is controlled for, the racial gap in prison sentences goes away.

But what you don’t see is blacks having longer prison sentences during segregation.

Black Multiple of White Median Time Served For ALL Releases in State and Federal Prisons

Type of Offense 1952 1964 2009
Homicide 1.056 1.109 1.202
Robbery 1.152 0.973 1.188
Assault 1 0.954 1.111
Burglary 1.136 1.158 1.067
Theft 1.188 1.063 1.091
Fraud 1.333 1 1
Rape 1.242 N/A 1.054
Other Sexual Assault 1 1.241 0.854
Drug Crimes 0.8333 1.031 1.154
Other 1 1.071 0.85
All Crime 1.143 1.2 1.133

Now what if we looked at median prison time served just in the South, and back in 1937 – smack in the middle of “Jim Crow” – and included repeat offenders, of which black inmates are a higher proportion today? The result is not that much different from the entire US today:

Black Multiple of White Median Time Served For ALL Releases in 14 Southern States in State and Federal Prisons

Type of Offense 1937
Homicide 1.345
Robbery 1
Assault 1.103
Burglary 1.149
Theft 1.033
Fraud N/A
Rape 1.265
Other Sexual Assault 1.154
Drug Crimes N/A
Other 0.955
All Crime 1.189

Remember, the 1937 data is JUST from the South, supposedly the hot seat of bigotry, and includes repeat offenders.

Homicide data is an unweighted average of each category. In 1937 and 1952 they used Murder and Manslaughter, in 1964 they just had Homicide, and in 2009 they had Murder, Negligent Manslaughter and Non-Negligent Manslaughter.

In case you think I am cherry-picking the years to paint a particular narrative, these are literally just the years used in the Bureau of Justice report I am citing.

And so what we can see is that the black-white incarceration gap is wider today than it was in 1930. In addition, the racial gap in sentence length for first offenders does not appear to have changed at all. Even the data that INCLUDED repeat offenders just in the South in 1937 doesn’t differ that much from the first-time offender data nationally and later.

And so this makes the idea that the current US legal system was more biased against blacks during segregation than it is today SEEM false.

3. Lynching

A related topic to this is lynching. From Richard M. Perloff, Professor of Communication at Cleveland State University:

“Approximately 4,742 individuals were lynched between 1882 and 1968; of the victims, 3,445 or 73 percent were Black.”

All lynchings were in response to a claimed offense, such as a rape or stealing cattle. Blacks were 72.65% of all recorded lynchings while being ~26.87% of the population of the South at the time.

The Black population of the Southern US 1880-1970 averages 26.87% at each decade. And so based on their population alone, if lynchings were race-neutral, and we knew nothing about race differences in violent crime going in, we would expect 26.87% of all lynchings to be of blacks. Blacks comprised 72.65% of all lynchings, giving them a representation 2.70 times their population.

However, according to wikipedia, most lynchings occurred between 1882 and 1920, and during that time period the average black population was 31.76% of the southern US population. Using this number, blacks as a percentage of lynchings are only 2.29 times their percentage of the population.

If we split the difference and just say that the black population of the south was 29.32% of the total population, then blacks as a percentage of lynchings was 2.48 times their percentage of the population.

By comparison, in 2010, blacks comprised 12.6% of the total US population, but were 38.13% of the population charged for violent crimes, giving them a representation 3.03 times their population.

And so by raw numbers the lynch mobs appear to be slightly less racially targeting than the current US legal system is. Here are those numbers put in a table:

Percent of Population Percent of Violent Crime Incarcerations Percent of Lynchings Proportion
Blacks in the South 1880-1970 26.87% 72.65% 2.70
Blacks in the whole US 2010 12.6% 31.13% 3.03

4. Income

This is where arguments regarding the negative effects of segregation start to have some backing in data. Looking at census data from 1948, we can see that black income as a proportion of white income went from around 44% in 1948 to about 80% in 2000. This looks like a massive effect from desegregation on it’s face:

However, there is some interesting data from 1880. If you just look within regions, the racial gap is much less. At that time, black workers earned on median 37% of what white workers earned. However, if you just looked at the south, blacks earned 58% of what white workers earned. So just with that regional control we’re already almost half way to the current black-white income ratio.

Population and wage income by race and region in 1880

Percent of Total Race Per Laborer Income Black % of White
Black South 90.47% $74.96 58.36%
White South 24.32% $128.45
Black Not-South 9.53% $194.44 73.51%
White Not-South 75.68% $264.52


But the paper did something else – it looked at black labor income relative to whites, but just looked at rural southern whites and blacks, and only looked at labor income. And in that instance, black income was 89% of white income:

And so when you look at the same region, and the same kind of work, and just compare the wages of workers, the black-white income gap in the rural South was only 11%, lower than it is today. And that difference could very plausibly be due to blacks having fewer skills on average in 1880.

I would be interested to see similar thin slices just looking at urban blacks in the south vs. urban whites in the south, and urban blacks in the north to urban whites in the north. I suspect that the more you held constant region and urban/rural divide, the smaller the racial gap would be.

Which is to say, that it seems like much of the black-white income gap could have been a function of blacks living in rural areas (which were poorer back then) and living in the south (which was poorer back then).

In addition, we can see that the narrowing of the black-white income gap roughly corresponds with blacks moving out of the south. This is not a 1:1 correlation, but it is does suggest that simply moving out of the south, which began in earnest around 1910, is part of the explanation for the narrowing of the black-white income gap:



And in the north, where more of the blacks were slaves who had earned their freedom before 1865, black wages as a proportion of white wages were higher. In fact blacks in the north were wealthier than whites in the south for quite some time.

Moreover, the narrowing of the black-white income gap at the national level occurred almost entirely during segregation. So to say that the smaller amount of narrowing that occurred following desegregation was in fact a result of desegregation is something that sounds kinda plausible – there’s certainly a little story you can tell – but there’s very little data for it. The most you could say is that there was a brief acceleration of the narrowing of the black-white income gap immediately after 1965, but that could be a coincidence, and even if you want to say it was a result of the civil rights act, then the acceleration versus a continuation of the previous trend is still only going to be like 2%.

Now as for why the black-white income gap narrowed from 1948 (at least) to 2000, that’s another topic. I suspect much of it has to do with the economic rise of the south and the migration of blacks away from the rural economy. Also this higher income may not have corresponded with a rise in living standards relative to whites since the cost of living may have increased, but that’s more speculative. But desegregation doesn’t appear to have any relevance to it.

So even the narrowing of the black-white income gap, long touted as prime evidence that segregation was previously suppressing black wages, the evidence is not so clear on that.

5. Wealth and Employment

Two more things to consider is that up until the 1950’s blacks had employment rates similar to that of whites. And the unemployment rate in blacks grew much more after 1965:

And in terms of wealth, black wealth as a proportion of white wealth has remained stagnant since 1963:


Moreover, I would say that the absolute disparity is more important than the black-white ratio. Because lets say you have $10 and Bob has $100. That’s a $90 gap. Depending on your job, that’s a day’s wage, or half a day’s wage. Now if you have $100 and Bob has $900, now you’re looking at multiple days’ wage. And so on and so on. So even though the relation is the same, the practical importance of the gap is growing. Also just the total dollar amount difference is increasing. And these are all in “2013 dollars”, which adjusts for inflation.

And so when people say that the relative economic situation of blacks has improved relative to whites since segregation, they’re looking at one thing: nominal income at the national level. They’re not looking at employment, at wealth, or how much, if at all, the income gap has narrowed when controlling for what region of the country we’re looking at, or if it’s urban or rural.

6. Schools

Another argument that segregation depressed black economic success is their lower school funding. On average, from 1890 to 1950, the average of how much each state spent on black schools as a proportion of what they spent on white schools was 56.96%. So they had less funding.

But funding for what? For “better teachers”? What’s a “better teacher”? What has been found in the US is that increased real spending on schools has not increased overall performance since the 1970s, and more importantly voucher studies have shown that the school an individual goes to has no real impact on either GPA, standardized test scores or future college attendance.

So the fact that additional funding didn’t matter in 1970 is one thing. But did it matter from 1870 to 1954?

Well, we don’t have regular standardized tests from that time period, but we do have a nationally representative IQ test done in 1917 for all US army conscripts for World War 1. In it blacks scored a median of 83 compared to the white score that was set to 100. Today the black median is still at 85. Okay, two points. And my guess is they were hollow for “g” anyway.

Certainly there were journalists at the time who did “investigative journalism” and wrote anecdotal reports of how bad the black schools were. Michael Moore does “investigative journalism” today too about how great the Cuban healthcare system is. Walter Duranty visited the USSR in the 1930s and came back writing glowing reviews of the benevolent, if firm, policies of Stalin.

Maybe they were telling the truth, maybe they were making things up, who knows.

Black schools were probably worse But the question is how much worse really? And for most people, did it even matter? Most of what people learn in school they forget anyway, so aside from literacy and basic math, the practical importance of school would be minimal for most people at that time.

And the culture of school credentials as a signal to employers hadn’t developed yet, so at the time any “educational disadvantages” blacks had, whatever they were and if any, would not matter in terms of credential-signaling because that hadn’t developed yet, and in terms of knowledge beyond basic literacy and math – that all gets forgotten anyway.

7. Countrymen?

This section is a bit of a digression. In a broader sense, blacks weren’t seen as legitimate countrymen to some extent for some time in the region. And so since blacks were viewed as “foreigners” to southern whites, who to some extent viewed northern whites as foreigners as well, they didn’t think they owed blacks equal school funding any more than they owed people from Peru or Romania or China equal school funding.

I.e. the black-white gap in school funding meant as much to them as the american-chinese gap in school funding, as both the Chinese and the blacks were foreign to southern whites.

Now you can have whatever opinion you want about it, and say that blacks were rightful countrymen of southern whites, and really pound your fists in self-righteous certainty about it because you “know it to be true”. That’s certainly your viewpoint.

But understand that it is just your viewpoint, and when you realize that southern whites viewed blacks the way we look at illegal immigrants today, and that the times during which either repatriation of blacks to Africa or creating a separate black country out of land in the US were serious proposals were still in living memory at the time.

Today blacks have been part of the US for so long that such proposals probably seem bizarre to you. But also remember that the US had to impose military governments in the south in order to pass the 14th amendment that gave blacks citizenship. Oregon, New Jersey and Ohio renounced their ratification of the 14th amendment after the fact in protest of this action.

Obviously it was a symbolic gesture, but it showed that opposition to the way the 14th amendment was passed wasn’t considered some kooky fringe idea at the time. Of course it is now because if you bring up the use of military governments in passing the 14th amendment – well, “only racists talk about that”, so it just gets dismissed.

But yes, understand that the 14th amendment was seen like granting “amnesty” to illegals is today – it would be creating an alternative method of granting citizenship for a specific group of non-citizens in the US today.

(And the fact that more whites supported granting citizenship to black slaves at the time than supporting granting amnesty to illegals today is support for a theory I have about whites in the past being more “neurologically left-wing” even if they would be considered today to hold “far-right” positions by today’s standards.)


The beginning of my line of thinking here was the cases involving George Zimmerman and Derrick Wilson. Among the general public there was controversy. But among the jurors, there was no controversy, the cop (in the case of Wilson) and the wanna-be cop (in the case of Zimmerman) were unanimously found to be not guilty. And there were riots and protests in response to these events, and protesters would use these events as examples of a “white supremacist” society.

The jurors certainly knew more facts about each case than the general public did. Moreover, whites are more likely to believe Zimmerman and Wilson were justified, and whites do better on tests of current events knowledge. In addition, males, who do better on current events knowledge tests than females, also were more satisfied with the Zimmerman verdict than women, and women do worse on current events knowledge tests. Also, people with higher education levels approved the verdict as well.

Thus, all three factors that correlate with general political and current events knowledge (being white, being male and having lots of time in school) also correlate with approving the Zimmerman trial verdict. And the people who had the MOST knowledge – the jurors – unanimously found Zimmerman not guilty.

If you go by the literature in news media talking about “institutional racism” and “white privilege”, it’s not immediately obvious that the aggregate of all media is any less obsessed with the plight of the coloreds than they were in 1964. Maybe they were, but I have no way to really tell.

But lets say Derrick Wilson killed “the gentle giant” in 1961. There was no internet in 1961, what you knew about the events was what a few major news outlets chose to report. As it happens, a jury also found J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant not guilty of murder in their killing of Emmett Till. And what do you know about that event? Do the facts you know of the Emmett Till verdict seem to paint a one-sided story to where it is unbelievable, yes, unbelievable that a jury would find Bryant and Milam not guilty?

Because we all know that the courts in the South were incredibly unfair to the blacks? Except there’s no real data to support that at the time, and victim surveys from modern times correspond with the police arrest rates, and police are more likely to kill a white person in any given arrest situation, are more likely to shoot blacks in simulations, and the black percentage of killing cops is higher than their percentage of being killed by cops. And in fact the black incarceration rate relative to whites is HIGHER than it was during segregation.

As shown in previous articles, modern “institutional racism” in terms of police and court bias, callbacks and educational opportunities are very easily revealed to be phantasms – or at the very least the issue of whether or not they exist is much more complex than the basic statistics you hear on tumblr and huffpo posts would suggest.

Recent studies have shown that residential racial segregation has increased in the United States. This is an improvement over older studies which simply looked at cities and the percentage of each race in the cities. These newer methods actually look at the likelihood of you having a neighbor of a different race, and find that racial segregation is increasing.

We already know that schools are more segregated than they were during the late 1960s. Now this is a profound thing; you’ve been to school. You had first hand experience with how racially segregated they were. THAT was close to what it was like during Jim Crow that we hear so many stories about. So… how segregated did it seem?

In other places on this site, Sean and I make arguments about how currently, blacks and hispanics are not getting a raw deal in employment, courts or education. But what surprised me was just how much, looking into the past, the old days seem so similar to today in terms of the lot of blacks compared to whites.

They are drawn parallel. The past is not far away, it’s right here. 60 years ago was yesterday.