Historical Origins of Racial Inequality in Incarceration in the United States
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CitationMuller, Christopher Michael. 2014. Historical Origins of Racial Inequality in Incarceration in the United States. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
AbstractThis dissertation consists of three essays on the historical roots of racial disparity in incarceration in the United States.
The first essay examines the origins of racial inequality in convict leasing in the postbellum U.S. South. Following emancipation, white southerners feared two primary challenges to the region's agricultural economy and social order: African Americans' flight from farms to cities, and African Americans' ability to procure land. In their capacities as accusers and jurors, white civilians exercised considerable discretion over the arrest and conviction of African Americans for minor offenses such as property crimes. Using archival administrative records of the Georgia convict lease system, combined with the complete 1880 U.S. Census, I find that African-American men living in urban counties or in counties where the per-capita value of land owned by African Americans was high were much more likely to be incarcerated for property crimes than similar individuals in rural counties or in counties where African Americans were largely excluded from landownership.
The second essay traces a portion of the rise of racial inequality in incarceration in northern and southern states to increasing rates of African-American migration to the North between 1880 and 1950. It employs three analytical strategies. First, it introduces a decomposition to assess the relative contributions of geographic shifts in the population and regional changes in the incarceration rate to the increase in racial disparity. Second, it estimates the effect of the rate of white and nonwhite migration on the change in the white and nonwhite incarceration rates of the North. Finally, it uses macro- and microdata to evaluate the mechanisms proposed to explain this effect.
The third essay has two objectives. First, it provides a descriptive account of trends in racial inequality in imprisonment from the late 1980s through the first decade of the twentieth century. Second, it asks whether prison growth and regional variation in racial disparity in imprisonment have common causes. Although absolute racial disparity grew markedly between 1981 and 2002, relative racial disparity did not increase. Disparity in drug admissions spiked dramatically between 1985 and 2005, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, but disparity in admissions for non-drug crimes was also high. In some years, the drug and homicide admissions rate for whites and African Americans was higher in counties with greater poverty and unemployment rates and lower per-capita income, but changes in poverty, employment, and income were not strongly associated with changes in drug admissions. Taken together, these results suggest that racial disparity in imprisonment is not solely a product of the recent history of the prison boom.
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