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

Author(s):Wright, Gavin
Reviewer(s):Boustan, Leah

Published by EH.Net (August 2013)

Gavin Wright, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. xii + 353 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-04933-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Leah Boustan, Department of Economics, UCLA.

In his presidential address to the Economic History Association in 1999, Gavin Wright asserted that ?we American economic historians have to take the post-World War II era on board as history, if we hope to have an impact on the broader economics profession.? Over the past 15 years, economic historians have answered this call, producing sterling work on topics like the Interstate Highway System of the 1950s, the race riots of the 1960s, and the birth control pill of the 1970s. Sharing the Prize, a concise, cogent (and eminently teachable) volume on the economic history of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. South, the original topic of Wright?s EHA address, represents the author?s own engagement with the post-War period. The book focuses on the political economy and economic consequences of racial integration in four realms: public accommodations, labor markets, public schools, and electoral politics.

Wright, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History at Stanford University, views the Civil Rights movement (or, as he calls it, ?the Civil Rights revolution?) as a ?fundamental break from past trends? (p. 4). In the book?s first chapter, Wright lays out his central argument, asserting that the South would not have renounced racial segregation without the outside pressure of federal intervention. Even if, ultimately, discrimination was bad for business, cutting off shopkeepers from potential customers and discouraging employers from hiring qualified workers, businessmen believed that segregation was in their economic interest and, therefore, this low-profit equilibrium may have persisted indefinitely. Shopkeepers thought that serving blacks would drive away their loyal white customers; employers assumed that black workers were lazy and shiftless. Wright describes this set of beliefs as a ?superstructure of segregation … embedded in norms, perceptions, interests, and institutions of remarkable persistence and resiliency? (p. 25).

Following a second chapter that provides useful background on the post-bellum southern economy, Wright turns to the four successes of the Civil Rights movement in a series of substantive chapters. Chapters 3 and 4 argue that southern shopkeepers and employers only began to change their views about integration after interacting with black customers or the black workforce, experiences that were foisted upon them through grassroots activism or government intervention. Shop owners learned, to their surprise, that whites and blacks would shop together peaceably after watching the ease with which stores in Greensboro, NC and Nashville, TN desegregated following months of concerted protest. Within a few years, these initially-resistant retailers became champions of comprehensive federal legislation, seeking to prevent their rivals from competing for customers by offering segregated facilities. Similarly, employers modified their negative views of black workers after provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required them to hire their first black employees, many of whom turned out to be far more productive than expected. Wright points out that rising levels of black education in the South, which enhanced black productivity, was complementary to this federal pressure.

Today, integration in public accommodations and in southern labor markets, two social changes that ended up being in the interest of (white) business owners, seems to be complete and irreversible. In contrast, the desegregation of southern public schools and the extension of political power to blacks, two realms in which integration generated fewer benefits for ? and possibly even imposed costs on ? the white majority, faced more initial resistance and have achieved more qualified success. Chapters 5 and 6 address efforts at racial integration in this more-contested terrain.

Wright convincingly argues in Chapter 5 that, despite its limited reach, desegregation policy had tangible effects on black outcomes in the South. From complete legal segregation in 1960, southern schools became the least segregated in the country by 1980, encouraged both by the carrot of federal funding and the stick of legal action. Careful econometric studies have shown that desegregation contributed to rising black high school graduation rates. Black test scores in the South also grew faster than in any other region or for any other demographic group during this period.

Chapter 6 contends that the one piece of the Civil Rights package whose long-term impact remains the most uncertain is the Voting Rights Act (VRA), particularly after a recent Supreme Court case invalidated a key provision of the law. The VRA clearly led to an immediate increase in black voter registration; in Mississippi, one extreme case, black registration soared from less than 10 percent in 1964 to nearly 70 percent in 1970. However, the effective use of black political power ? measured, for example, in the ability to elect black office-holders ? has taken time to mobilize and has been consistently undermined by tactics like gerrymandering or shifts from district-based to at-large elections. Over the past twenty years, the Republican Party has consolidated its power in southern states, often pushing a policy platform at odds with the preferences of black voters.

The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts generated discontinuous jumps in black inclusion in the labor market and the political process. Indeed, most of the econometric work on this era, often done by ?fellow travelers? to economic history rather than economic historians themselves, focuses on these moments of rupture in order to carefully identify the effects of Civil Rights laws. However, as Wright demonstrates, the initial passage of the legislation was only the first step in fostering true integration; more lasting change required years of ?grassroots activism and litigation, extending into the 1970s and beyond? (p. 22). The opening of southern labor markets, for example, entailed years of litigation under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as well as a landmark Supreme Court case (Griggs v. Duke Power), which prevented employers from adding extra job requirements used to screen out minority candidates.

By moving beyond a sole focus on the moment of legislative change, Wright provides a historical narrative of the Civil Rights era that is both richer, but also less causally solid, than the existing literature. For instance, Wright attributes many of the economic trends in the South in the 1970s and 1980s to Civil Rights activities, despite the fact that the South was simultaneously undergoing other important economic changes, including a manufacturing boom. One of the central claims in the book is that the ?Civil Rights revolution was economically beneficial for whites as well as blacks? (p. 27). Yet, in this context of rapid southern economic growth, it is not surprising to find that southern whites experienced rising wages and reductions in high school dropout rates throughout the period. The relevant question is: would this wage growth have been faster if not for the new competition from black workers? Wright is well aware of this concern but finds the use of counterfactual thinking to be insufficient to the task, allowing researchers to ?easily construct hypothetical scenarios? in which southern whites lost out as southern blacks gained (p. 146). My sense is that Wright?s view of the counterfactual approach is too dismissive; with a well-constructed and specific counterfactual, one could (and perhaps, after reading the book, enterprising graduate students soon will) test claims about the effect of Civil Rights on southern whites more rigorously.

However, Sharing the Prize should not be judged against the narrow standards of these econometric studies. Instead, the value of this volume lies in Wright?s ability to synthesize prior empirical work, place these findings into their historical context, and, in so doing, build a compelling narrative to explain why integration did not reach the South earlier and how the Civil Rights movement revolutionized southern black lives when it finally did.

Leah Boustan is an Associate Professor of Economics at UCLA and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, which is under contract at Princeton University Press.

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Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Labor and Employment History
Markets and Institutions
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII