The African American Labor Market

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from leasing out laborers to desperate white southerners who needed to upkeep their crops and coal mines.

Although some economic historians (DeCanio, Higgs; 1975, 1977) have concluded that laws aimed at repressing blacks were largely ineffective because of economic competition amongst blacks, Jennifer Roback of the University of Chicago Law Review asserts that the convict lease system served as a exploitive byproduct of white southerners’ desire to proclaim economic dominance over the African American labor market. The motives of lessees were not solely economically driven - they were racially discriminatory practices with the intent of keeping African-Americans as subservient citizens. Along the way, white southerners realized that they could use large groups of criminalized African Americans to build infrastructure, such as railroads, to mine coal and iron, make turpentine, clear land, and of course, grow cotton. Similarly, state governments realized that they could economically profit while socially benefiting from having African Americans off the streets and back on plantations. Since nearly all convicts were black, few whites cared about what happened to them. And if the supply of convicts fell below the demand, legislators and sheriffs stood ready to increase the supply.

In a sense, pig laws, vagrancy laws, and convict leasing served as negative incentives to freed persons who were hesitant to enter into labor contracts that offered low pay, long hours, and poor
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