We don’t tend to look at the wealth gap as a form of violence, even though it’s certainly rooted in it.
Take the massacre in Wilmington, N.C.
The 1898 race riot is one of those stories that have been willfully erased from history, even though it is the only coup d’état to ever take place on American soil. Thirty-three years after the South lost the Civil War, gangs of white men took to the streets in the port city of Wilmington. In a single day, they murdered as many as 60 black people, drove untold others from their homes, burned black businesses to the ground and overthrew the mixed-race government that had been elected two days prior. Before Nov. 10, 1898, Wilmington was a majority-black city.
It hasn’t been ever since. And the names of the white supremacists who assumed power after the massacre remain emblazoned on street signs, government buildings and college auditoriums.
One of the businesses burned down was the Daily Record, a black newspaper at the center of the riot. I thought of how that business, along with many others, was stopped in its nascency—never allowed to gather value, never allowed to prosper. How it would never be passed down within the family, the way Katharine Graham inherited the Washington Post.
How do you account for that sort of absence? What untold millions has this country given up—willingly—to keep black bodies in their place?
Black wealth, stifled at the root and then stamped on subsequently, in each following generation, in myriad cruel, deliberate ways.
To look at the wealth gap as it is in 2017 is to look at the evidence of an accumulated, and ongoing, economic massacre.
(Not) Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap
The statistics are consistent, and they are overwhelming. For every $100 in wealth a white family has, black families hold just $5.04. The average white family is worth an astonishing $600,000 more than the average black family. Black middle-class families may have zero wealth in less than 40 years. One study found that, without the family car, black wealth would “barely exist.”
The black middle class is shrinking, but despite the abundance of research that illuminates this, there is no urgency. In fact, one recent study found that both white and black Americans vastly underestimate how big the wealth gap really is.
The problem? Americans don’t seem to understand what wealth means.
Income, the amount of money you earn every year, is frequently confused with wealth, which is the sum total of all your assets—minus your debt. It’s a basic financial concept, but at least one study has shown that Americans may not really grasp the difference.
Michael Kraus, one of the Yale researchers who conducted a study that looked at how black and white Americans perceive the racial wealth gap, explained: “The estimates looked the same for wealth and income, which suggests that people are not differentiating.” This, even though respondents were given explicit definitions of wealth vs. income.
Knowing Your History
The causes of the racial wealth gap are well-documented. For hundreds of years, black Americans were either denied the ability to purchase land or start businesses—or run the ones they had built. In the 1950s, when the U.S. government made owning a home the cornerstone of the so-called American dream, racist housing policies locked black people out of the market. That history alone is difficult ground to make up.
But add to that the impact of mass incarceration. Anti-black job discrimination hasn’t improved in over 25 years. Tax policies continue to privilege the very wealthy (who are disproportionately white). Bank of America and Wells Fargo are still being accused of predatory lending by targeting minority home buyers. And the student loan debt crisis—fueled by the exploitative practices of for-profit institutions—disproportionately affects black graduates.
Yet all too often, the gap in prosperity is treated as though it’s some moral failing on the part of black Americans, that it’s a lack of personal responsibility. That is, if it’s talked about at all. It’s how people like Amanda Seales can continue, in 2017, to chastise people for buying “Jordans and Nike suits,” as if poor consumer choices are what drives black America’s wealth crisis.
The United States of Amnesia
“People either forget about it or look for reasons to explain it away.”
—Jennifer Richeson, Yale Psychology Professor
It’s hard to assess wealth at face value. Two people can have the same job, wear the same clothes, drive the same car and have two very different wealth profiles. And because we can’t immediately perceive the wealth gap, it may be tempting to forget it’s there—even though we’ve seen the headlines repeatedly.
As Yale psychology professor Jennifer Richeson—a co-author of the racial-wealth-gap study—told me, some cognitive dissonance is at play. No matter how many times people encounter the data on the wealth gap, many are still shocked.
“People are surprised because we have this clear ... narrative of racial progress and these clear examples, like Barack Obama. Surely we must have made some progress,” said Richeson, who received a MacArthur “genius” grant. The persistence and expansion of the racial wealth gap goes against everything some people believe to be true about “equal-opportunity America,” she added.
“It’s very difficult and challenging, and either people forget about it or ... look for reasons to explain it away,” Richeson said.
A belief in meritocracy also primes people to believe that the racial wealth gap isn’t that bad—and both black Americans and white Americans are susceptible.
Richeson and Kraus found that a belief in societal fairness led Americans to overestimate racial economic equality. This, they say, is because people generally like to believe that their wealth is earned through their hard work and talent. But this myopia can and does blind us to the reality of how wealth actually works.
The wealth gap is measurable. The stats are dizzying. The causes are clear. It is not accidental. If there is any good news, it’s that there are a number of policy fixes—clear, specific proposals that would target the yawning gap between white families and families of color.
Because so many people have analyzed the racial wealth gap in this country, there is no shortage of targeted, specific solutions. In casual conversations, I often hear friends and acquaintances talk about addressing economic problems on personal terms: We need more financial literacy, they’ll say. Or we need to support black businesses.
While those initiatives are important, the racial wealth gap is so dire—and draws from so many causes—that policy solutions are not just necessary, they’re overdue.
In Fortune magazine, Josh Hoxie, director of the Project on Opportunity and Taxation and co-editor of Inequality.org, listed several such policies. They include expanding mortgage interest deductions, which promote homeownership by offering tax breaks; government-subsidized children’s savings accounts; and a federal jobs guarantee—an idea championed by none other than Martin Luther King Jr.
Tackling the student debt crisis is also imperative. Despite what many Americans believe, education alone cannot close the wealth gap—a fact made soberingly clear by the fact that black families with a college graduate still have less wealth than a white family with a high school diploma. For-profit colleges need to be taken to task for defrauding graduates—a solution that is frustratingly unlikely with Betsy DeVos helming the Department of Education.
This is important to consider as we head into another election year when economic issues continue to dominate the political landscape.
“Solving [the racial-inequality problem] would solve the class-inequality problem more broadly.”
—Michael kraus, professor at yale school of management
Until Americans take the racial wealth gap seriously, addressing racial and economic equality is simply impossible. At the heart of it all is accepting the notion, once and for all, that class and race are inextricable.
When I asked Richeson what she thought of the phrase “It’s not race, it’s class,” she said that Americans can’t talk about one as if the other doesn’t exist or matter: “Denying the significance of race is really not going to solve this problem or any number of other problems.”
Kraus, meanwhile, thought the phrase ought to be reversed.
“The race-based economic-inequality problem that we observed is historical. The economic wealth of our country is built on it,” Kraus pointed out.
“The racial-inequality problem, solving it would solve the class-inequality problem more broadly,” he added. “Our data suggests that.”