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The term African American has typically referred to descendants of enslaved and indentured black Africans transplanted by force into what is now the United States. The terms African American, black, and Afro-American are sometimes used interchangeably. African American has supplanted other designations, such as Negro, derived from the word Negroid, coined in the eighteenth century by European anthropologists. African American is sometimes applied more broadly to descendants of all ten million or more Africans forcibly transported to the Western Hemisphere from the beginning of the sixteenth century until the 1860s.
Africans shipped to the United States represented over forty ethnic groups from twenty-five different kingdoms, but constituted only 7 percent of all Africans transported to the Western Hemisphere by 1810. Over time, their descendants in the United States formed a composite identity shaped primarily by shared conditions, since historical circumstances and systematic de-Africanization efforts precluded the tracing of ancestry to precise points of origin. African American identity has been and is continuing to be constructed out of an African cultural and historical legacy, but it is shaped within the framework of intragroup cooperation and intergroup conflict within American society.
Chattel slavery contributed significantly to pre–Civil War economic growth in the United States. The invention of the cotton gin (1793) dramatically increased the demand for slaves by lowering the cost of cotton production and inducing landowners to expand production beyond coastal areas. Approximately one million African Americans were redeployed from the upper to the lower South via a well-organized urban-based internal slave trade. Slavery was a normal feature of southern American cities—in 1860 there were approximately seventy thousand urban slaves. Exploitation of African American labor resulted in a massive increase in cotton production from 300,000 bales in 1820 to nearly 4.5 million bales in 1860. Plantation owners used harsh physical punishments such as whippings, brandings, and amputations along with incentives to garner compliance. Incentives included prizes for the largest quantity of cotton picked, year-end bonuses, time off, and plots of land. Developing reliable estimates of income and wealth generated by slavery is difficult because much of the accumulated wealth of the slave regime was destroyed by the Civil War. Some income financed planters’ conspicuous consumption, a portion was converted into personal wealth holdings, and another fraction provided capital for large-scale industrial ventures.
A dramatic disparity in wealth holdings between African Americans and white Americans constitutes one of the most enduring legacies of slavery. While emancipation enabled African Americans to increase the portion of income actually received from agricultural pursuits, forces reproducing wealth disparities ensured continuing subjugation. The arrangements by which most African Americans remained tied to the agricultural sector were characterized as the “tenancy system.” Three different classes of tenancy emerged: cash tenancy, share tenancy, and sharecropping. Sharecroppers, the status to which African Americans were disproportionately relegated, owned nothing. Implements were supplied by the landowners on credit and the sharecropper paid half the crop as rent to the landowner. Debt peonage emerged when the croppers’ share of the harvest was insufficient to repay the landlord. Landlords often charged exorbitant interest rates for supplies and failed to give croppers their full share of the harvest value. Sharecropping laws required that indebted croppers remain on landlords’ land until all debts were satisfied.
Prior to World War I (1914–1918), African Americans remained overwhelmingly rural residents. In 1910 over 90 percent of the 9.8 million African Americans lived in the South and only 25 percent lived in cities of 2,500 or more. Between 1890 and 1910 the percentage of African American males employed in agriculture fell only slightly; the occupational situation of females actually worsened. The persisting effects of institutional discrimination introduced during earlier periods led to an unusual set of circumstances whereby the occupational and economic status of African Americans declined as their absolute and relative education was increasing. The opposite pattern would have been predicted by traditional economic models. Moreover, the trends in inequality that developed during this period were reproduced into the 1980s.
Spurred by floods, crop destruction by boll weevils, and the need for workers in war-related industries, the first net exodus from the South of about 454,000 African Americans occurred between 1910 and 1920. During World War I, the Division of Negro Economics was established within the U.S. Department of Labor to reduce tensions resulting from the introduction of African American workers into northern factories. The wisdom of this initiative was reinforced by race riots in Chicago, Omaha, and Washington, DC, during the summer of 1919.
Northward migration initiated a redefinition of African American identity that manifested itself most visibly in the cultural movement termed the “Harlem Renaissance” and the associated concept of the “New Negro.” The negritude movement that developed in the French African and Caribbean colonies introduced similar reconceptualizations of black identity. The African American scholar Alain Locke (1886–1954) declared that this redefined identity reflected a transformation in psychology such that “the mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority” (1925, p. 631).
Efforts to translate this new sense of identity into economic gains proved, however, to be problematic. Throughout the interwar period, rapid technological change increasingly pushed African Americans out of the agricultural sector. By 1930 the percentages of African American males and females employed in agriculture had fallen to 45 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Opportunities for manufacturing employment for African Americans were largely restricted to nonunionized industries, prompting a resurgence of self-organizing efforts, such as those of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, formed by the labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889– 1979).
Many African Americans capitalized on the new industrial employment opportunities generated by World War II (1939–1945), and this prospect contributed to a net southern out-migration of 1.6 million between 1940 and 1950. Between 1910 and 1950 the proportion of African American males employed as operatives increased from 6 percent to 22 percent. By 1950 the proportion of African American males and females employed in agriculture had fallen to 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively. For African American women, the decline in agricultural employment was associated with increases in employment as service workers, operatives, clerical and sales workers, and private household workers. These employment shifts contributed to a marked improvement in African Americans’ economic progress after World War II. Even before the civil rights movement took center stage in 1956, one in every three urban African American families owned their own home.
The civil rights and Black Power movements signaled shifts in the political and economic consciousness of African Americans catalyzed, in part, by the emergence of a larger and more diverse middle class. The two movements offered different approaches to addressing identity and economic advancement issues. The civil rights movement promoted complete integration of African Americans through elimination of all legalized segregation and discrimination, whereas the Black Power movement emphasized group solidarity and self-determination. It is important to note that the ideologies undergirding these movements were influenced significantly by such Caribbean scholars as Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), C. L. R. James (1901–1989), and Eric Williams (1911– 1981), as well as the liberation movements that developed in the African colonies. The most concrete policy outcomes of the civil rights movement were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Equal Housing Act of 1968. Measures focusing on redistribution of economic benefits, such as affirmative action, have proved to be more controversial and less successful.
While nondiscrimination and affirmative action policies have undoubtedly contributed to increases in the relative income of African Americans, as well as significant improvements in occupational distribution, many African Americans have not experienced significant improvements in economic well-being. Moreover, data covering the mid1990s to the first decade of the twenty-first century paint a fairly consistent picture of racial wealth disparities— namely, that the wealth of African American families is less than one-fifth that of whites. Stagnation in the quality of life of many African Americans has resulted, in part, from disproportionate vulnerability to forces associated with transformation of the U.S. economy. Between 1960 and 2000, the percentage of men working as operatives, fabricators, and laborers has declined from 46 to 29 for African Americans and from 25 to 18 for white Americans. About 50 percent of all workers displaced as a result of plant closings and relocations had been employed in manufacturing, and African Americans have been significantly overrepresented among displaced workers. In the wake of these employment shifts, African American men have a much higher unemployment rate than other groups, and between 1991 and 2000 the percentage of African American men not in the labor force has averaged 26, compared to 15 for whites.
Black Power ideology emphasizes African American self-determination, economic self-sufficiency, and black pride; these foci became a catalyst for the displacement of terms like Negro and colored. Black and Afro-American were in vogue briefly, but African American became the most popular term during the 1980s. Advocates of African American argue that this term is consistent with the nation’s immigrant tradition of “hyphenated Americans,” which preserves links between people and their or their ancestors’ geographic origins. For many, African American describes cultural and historical roots and also conveys pride and a sense of kinship and solidarity with other African diasporans.
Embracing the designation African American is not symbolic of a commitment to the type of cultural nationalism advocated by Black Power proponents. This is especially the case in the economic arena, although some contemporary commentators claim that African Americans’ disposable income constitutes a potential form of collective economic power, an argument reminiscent of those advanced in the past. However, suburbanization of a significant segment of the black middle class has stymied efforts to promote any functional type of economic development in the black community, which would require, among other conditions, the capacity to exercise sufficient control over economic resources to mobilize production processes and create markets.
Ironically, African American suburbanization has also not produced outcomes anticipated by integrationists, such as substantial reductions in residential segregation. Like their inner-city counterparts, African American suburban dwellers experience a high degree of residential segregation. In addition, middle-class suburbanization has increased the isolation experienced by inner-city African American residents, and has made it increasingly difficult to ameliorate persisting economic and social inequalities. The economic prospects of inner-city African American residents are constrained, in part, by a spatial mismatch between job location and place of residence as African Americans generally have the longest travel times to work in all regions of the country where public transportation is available.
Divergence of interests between middle-class and other African Americans creates new complications in defining African American identity. Each group accesses different configurations of “social capital,” that is, the complex of resources associated with group membership that individuals can use to enhance well-being. Persisting differences in social capital can generate disparate conceptions of group identity. Conventional notions of African American identity are also challenged by phenotypical discrimination reminiscent of patterns associated with the one-drop rule operative during the slavery and Jim Crow eras that led to formal designations of the extent of African parentage—mulatto (1/2), quadroon (1/4), and octoroon (1/8).
Phenotypical discrimination results in African Americans and Latinos with the darkest and most nonEuropean phenotype receiving lower incomes, having less stable employment, and obtaining less prestigious occupations than counterparts who are lighter or have more European physical features. In some studies, skin tone has been found to be the most important determinant of occupational status other than an individual’s education. Internalization of beliefs that skin-shade differences reflect membership in different groups adds ambiguity to efforts to define African American identity. In the 1980s parents of mixed-race children lobbied for the addition of a more inclusive term in census racial designations to reflect the multiple heritages of their offspring, and the term biracial has become more widely used and accepted to classify people of mixed race, reintroducing divisions between black and biracial subgroups into the American socialidentity fabric.
Contemporary immigration patterns also have important economic and identity consequences for those traditionally defined as African American. There is ongoing disagreement about the impact of international migration on African American employment, but some researchers maintain that immigration lowers the wages and reduces the labor supply of competing native workers, with the largest effects on high school dropouts. Increasingly, African American is applied to recent immigrants and their offspring from African and diasporan countries, irrespective of preferred self-identification. In every year between 1995 and 2003 (with the exception of 1999), over forty thousand documented immigrants from African nations entered the United States, with the largest numbers originating in Nigeria and Ghana. First-generation African and Caribbean immigrants tend to identify most strongly with their country of origin, although many of their offspring identify with domestic African Americans. Some immigrants from South American countries are also classified as African American, but are even less likely to identify with domestic African Americans.
To the extent that the designation African American and related terms are increasingly used to collect information regarding economic outcomes for diverse subgroups, researchers should practice extreme care in interpreting data to ensure that aggregate data do not mask inequalities experienced by identifiable subgroups. There are likely to be differences across subgroups in income-generating characteristics. In addition, the types of phenotypical and linguistic discrimination experienced by immigrants may parallel forms of discrimination experienced by domestic African Americans, but, a priori, it cannot be assumed that the consequences for economic outcomes are identical. As a consequence, ameliorative strategies may need to be tailored specifically to address the unique circumstances of various subgroups.
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