Lynchings, Labour, and Cotton in the US South

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH

Posted by: Cornelius Christian                                                                                  

Date: 28 November 2014

Lynchings, Labour, and Cotton in the US South

As goes without saying, lynchings of African Americans constitute a horrific part of US history, one that still requires explanation as to:

  1. Why they occurred;
  2. Their long-term consequences on African Americans

As an economist, I used my quantitative training to study these questions. I found that lynchings had an economic pattern rooted in labour markets: when labour demand falls, due to low cotton prices, white workers seek to scare black competitors away through lynchings. Furthermore, past lynchings predict higher black-white inequality today.

I use Tolnay and Beck’s (1995) data on lynchings in ten southern states. These historians painstakingly collected county-level lynchings data from 1882 to 1930, a period marked by the US South’s reliance on cotton exports, as white and black labourers competed for work on cotton plantations. I also gathered data on out-migration and state-level agricultural wages (county-level wages are not available), and controlled for black population in my analysis.

I find that shocks to world cotton prices predict lynchings of blacks; a standard deviation drop in the world cotton price leads to a 0.09 to 0.16 standard deviation increase lynchings in a cotton-growing county. Furthermore, lynchings predict greater black out-migration, and higher agricultural wages. These results suggest that lynchings were intended to drive black workers out of the cotton market, increasing wages and jobs for whites who were left behind.

Turning to modern-day data, from the 5-year American Community Survey for 2012, I find that past lynchings predict higher black-white family, household, and worker income gaps, even after controlling for standard socioeconomic factors. A standard deviation increase in past lynchings leads to a 0.08 to 0.15 standard deviation increase in black-white income gaps.

I then demonstrate that these modern-day results are robust to other tests: among them, controlling for past slavery and geography, and conducting two ‘placebo’ tests. For one placebo test, I use county-level California lynchings data from 1850 to 1935. Lynchings in California were not directed at African Americans: only 6 of the 352 California lynch victims were black. I find that California lynchings do not predict a higher black-white income gap in California, as I would expect.

These results indicate that violence, like lynchings, can be motivated by labour market concerns and their effects can persist - impacting current labour markets. They further indicate that economic shocks can lead to racist violence. And this in turn has implications for the contemporary debate over reparations and affirmative action.

Cornelius Christian is a DPhil candidate in Economics at the University of Oxford.


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