Category Archives: Economic Mobility
New Article: “The Blacks Who “Got Their Forty Acres”: A Theory of Black West Indian Migrant Asset Acquisition”
New Article: Eleanor Marie Lawrence Brown, The Blacks Who “Got Their Forty Acres”: A Theory of Black West Indian Migrant Asset Acquisition, 89 NYU L. Rev. 27 (2014). Abstract below:
The impediments to property acquisition and market success among African Americans are a significant area of inquiry in legal scholarship. The prevailing narrative on the historical relationship between Blacks and property is overwhelmingly focused on loss. However, in the political science, economics, and sociology literatures there is a countervailing narrative of successful property acquisition and retention among what might be termed a “market dominant” subset of migrant Blacks. The most successful subset of Black property owners in the United States today are descendants of Black migrants who were enslaved outside the United States. These free Black migrants, overwhelmingly British subjects originating from the West Indies, are largely invisible in the legal scholarship. Questions have arisen in other disciplines about what differentiated this subset of Black people. Why was their experience of property ownership so different?
Debates in the sociology, political economy, and political science literature have often focused on what Francis Fukuyama has controversially termed “cultural questions,” namely, the view that early West Indian migrants—like Korean or Japanese migrants—possessed a particular set of cultural traits that were distinctly well suited to asset acquisition. This Article focuses on a far more prosaic rationale, contending that the success of West Indian migrants may be rooted in the early grant of what I term “de facto property and contract rights” to West Indian slaves, which allowed their freedmen descendants to become the largest independent Black peasantry in the Americas. Between 1880 and 1924, U.S. immigration officials may have inadvertently selected for propertied migrant “types” when admitting immigrants. Through their own historical exposure to property and contract rights frameworks in the West Indies, as well as internal communal networks which supported informal banking schemes, these Blacks were particularly well placed to take advantage of opportunities for home and business ownership upon arrival in the United States.
The broader point is that there is a glaring omission amidst the “cultural” controversy: What about law? I use the term “law” in this context as it is used by many proponents of new institutional economics, as a proxy for an institutional frame- work that supports property acquisition, regardless of whether this framework is formal (state-supported) or customary. Moreover, the law and economics scholar- ship has focused extensively on institutional frameworks that allow certain religious and ethnic groups to dominate particular sectors, such as Orthodox Jews in the diamond industry or Koreans in the grocery sector. The insights of this literature allow us to interrogate whether Black West Indians had early access to institutions that facilitated contracting and property ownership and if so, whether this institutional history might contribute to their long-term asset acquisition patterns. The question necessarily arises: Why would we think of Black migrants any differently from the way we think of other ethnic and religious minorities who have been successful asset acquirers?
Two new articles are getting a significant amount of media attention:
1. Raj Chetty et al., Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States, NBER Working Paper 19843 (2014).
2. Raj Chetty et al., Is the United States Still the Land of Opportunity? Recent Trends in Intergenerational Mobility?, NBER Working Paper 19844 (2014).
The authors have a nice website, The Equality of Opportunity Project, with links to executive summaries, slides, maps, and the extensive media coverage. [The media coverage includes helpful summaries as well as some misleading takes or choices of what to emphasize.]
Brief Report from the Economic Mobility Project: “Moving On Up: Why Do Some Americans Leave the Bottom of the Economic Ladder, but Not Others?”
Brief Report from the Economic Mobility Project: “Moving On Up: Why Do Some Americans Leave the Bottom of the Economic Ladder, but Not Others?“
New Article: Thomas W. Mitchell, Growing Inequality and Racial Economic Gaps, 56 How. L.J. 849 (2013). Available here (you have to scroll through the issue to get to this article).
Although I am annoyed at the New York Times right now (the amount they charge to reprint articles in a poverty law textbook is insanely high!), the following story is good: David Leonhardt, In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters, New York Times, July 22, 2013. Includes a good graphic.
Interactive Graphics: Economic Mobility Project, “Income and Wealth in America Across Generations,” Feb. 2013.
New Article: Lucille A. Jewel, Merit and Mobility: A Progressive View of Class, Culture, and the Law, SSRN 2012. Abstract below:
Rising income inequality and financial trauma in the middle class beg the question of whether social mobility, long a part of America’s narrative identity, is truly available to Americans residing in the lower rungs of society. This paper addresses the connection between culture and social mobility, looking particularly at how culture impacts social outcomes in America’s meritocratic educational system. Analyzing culture and cultural capital from a progressive perspective, this paper concludes that culture operates subtly, helping some retain or improve their existing position but interfering with the mobility of others. The rhetoric of individual merit, however, obscures the role that culture plays in reproducing existing social structures.
In the context of merit and mobility, this paper also analyzes class disadvantage as it relates to affirmative action. As the Supreme Court is set to decide another affirmative action case this term, we are reminded that barriers of disadvantage continue to prevent educational institutions from achieving acceptable levels of diversity. Often operating in tandem with economic and racial disadvantage, cultural disadvantage obstructs mobility in a powerful way. Accordingly, cultural disadvantage, captured using a robust set of socio-economic and race-conscious factors, should be something that institutions consider when formulating diversity plans. However, affirmative action plans, while necessary, cannot be the only solution to the problem. More radical and systemic solutions are needed to reboot social mobility in this country.
Part II of this paper provides a foundational understanding of progressive cultural theory, placing it in the context of the two opposing theories most often used to explain unequal outcomes in America: individual merit versus environmental/societal factors. Progressive cultural theory posits that unequal outcomes are not fully explainable by differences in individual merit. Rather, pre-existing cultural advantages help some advance, but for others, unequal structures produce cultural barriers that impede mobility. Relying upon recent social science research, Part III of this paper examines how culture and cultural capital interact with our merit based educational system; how cultural differences within the middle class impacts social mobility; and how culture interacts with pre-existing structures of racial inequality. As diversity within higher education mostly affects individuals in the middle class, Part IV analyzes what cultural disparities within the middle class mean for the affirmative action debate. Part IV concludes that the Supreme Court, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, should reaffirm Justice O’Connor’s diversity rationale for using race-conscious measures to achieve a critical mass of minority students but also argues that we should not be trapped into a false choice between racial diversity or class-based diversity.
In grappling with the issues of disadvantage and mobility within the affirmative action debate, I ultimately conclude that the entire merit and selectivity system should be collapsed. Thus, Part V offers some suggestions for making our merit system less insular and more inclusive, including the salvo that successful professionals who have “won” the merit game take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we are contributing to the trend toward oligarchy.
New Report: Gregory Acs, Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking up from the American Dream, Economic Mobility Project 2011.