The Legacy of Slavery on Black Incarceration in the US: From Plantations to Prisons?

Melissa Rubio (University of Gothenberg)


Black males constitute 6.5% of the US population, but account for 40% of the prison population. What are the origins of the racial incarceration gap? While the extent to which these disparities reflect differences in criminal conduct, socio-economic background, and discrimination in arrest and sentencing is a long-standing question in economics, little is known about the roots of this disparity. This paper uses US decennial censuses for the period 1850 to 1940 to show that the racial incarceration gap can be traced back to the times of slavery. In particular, I exploit the variation in the prevalence of slavery to estimate the short- and long-run persistence of slavery. I instrument for slavery with a county’s suitability for growing cotton. Using a rich digitalized data set on prison records, I document a substantial increase in black incarceration immediately after the abolition of slavery. Starting with an equal incarceration gap, the gap has grown since then. To shed light on potential mechanisms, I collect novel historical data on prison working camps from the Department of Labor. Stitching these results together, and after controlling for racist attitudes towards blacks, I provide evidence that the high levels of black incarceration in the US started at least in part, due to economic reasons related to labor scarcity.